Turkey’s Old-Guard Opposition Fights to Surf Wave of Unrest

The protesters who occupied central Istanbul and filled streets and squares nationwide in the past month have made it clear what they’re against: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. The country’s main opposition party admits it has yet to offer them something to support.

A picture has been circulating among activists on social media since the unrest began last month. It shows Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition, and nationalist chief Devlet Bahceli, and the caption reads: “We’re not here for you. We’re here because you couldn’t do it.” Kilicdaroglu said in an interview that the protests show his party erred by ignoring Turkey’s youth and their demands for change.

“These kids communicate with other nations and demand to have the same confidence about this country’s citizens too,” he said on June 15. “So far we have made them fear others so they vote for us. Now we see how wrong we have been.”

Local and presidential elections are due next year, followed by a parliamentary vote in 2015. The onus is on the opposition to broaden its appeal and capitalize on the view, expressed by many at demonstrations in the past month, that the government has become too authoritarian and Islamist. That’s especially true for Kilicdaroglu’s party, the traditional vehicle for Turkey’s more secular voters. In 2011, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won 50 percent of the vote, Kilicdaroglu got barely more than half of that.

“Those who want topple the government must work as hard as we do,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said today.

‘Old Guard’

Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP, created by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and often labeled Kemalist, has been identified with the suppression of religious freedoms under military and civilian governments, which Erdogan says he has reversed. After interviewing demonstrators in Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the center of protests, research firm Konda found that 47 percent said there was no suitable party for them to vote for.

“From now on, opposition to the AKP will not be solely or even primarily be identified with the Kemalist old guard CHP,” said Halil M. Karaveli, a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program based in Washington and Stockholm. “Whether that can be turned into an effective, new opposition party is an altogether different matter, and I believe, unlikely.”

Three Wins

More likely, “once Erdogan has left the stage, is that the old alliance between conservatives and liberals, that once brought the AKP to power, is resurrected under a more moderate leadership,” he said.

Erdogan shows no signs of leaving the stage. At rallies in Ankara and Istanbul last weekend, where the party bussed in supporters and the hundreds of thousands attending dwarfed protester numbers, he urged supporters to answer the demonstrators at the ballot box, and reminded them of the economic legacy that has brought him three election wins.

That includes an average growth rate exceeding 5 percent, plunging inflation and interest rates, and the clearing of Turkey’s debts to the International Monetary Fund. In the previous decade, average growth was about two percentage points lower, rates often exceeded 100 percent, and the country was forced to seek IMF loans amid recessions and bank failures.

Erdogan’s party draws its strongest support from among poorer Turks. Many of the protesters came from wealthier middle-class backgrounds, and Konda found more than half were university graduates.

‘New Beginning’

Kilicdaroglu’s party has opposed policies including state asset sales, Erdogan’s readiness to negotiate with Kurdish separatists, and his removal of restrictions on religious expression or customs such as the Islamic headscarf.

It has also spoken against Erdogan’s campaign to curb army powers, which has included the jailing of hundreds of officers on charges of plotting coups.

“This is a new beginning,” Kilicdaroglu said in the interview in Istanbul. “We learned that we need to change our policies, which are based on fears of religion, Kurds dividing the country, or military coups.”

The clashes sparked in Gezi Park have left at least four people dead and thousands injured, and battered Turkish stocks and bonds. Government spokesman Huseyin Celik yesterday estimated the damage at 140 million liras ($74 million), and tourism agents reported a drop in bookings.

Opposition ‘Vacuum’

While accepting that some protesters have legitimate environmental concerns and promising a public vote on any plans to redesign Gezi, Erdogan has repeatedly described demonstrators as extremists and blamed the Republicans for supporting “vandals” and “riff-raff” because it couldn’t win at the ballot box.

He also says that the weakness of the opposition is a deficit for Turkish democracy. While it benefits his party, “we regard such a vacuum of opposition in Turkey as a misfortune,” Erdogan said yesterday. Egemen Bagis, the minister for European Union negotiations, said today that tensions would not have reached boiling point had there been an effective opposition.

“I call on these young people to establish a political party,” Bagis said. “They would both force us to work harder, and take a step for the good of the country.”

In a report on June 11, Moody’s Investors Service cited “a weak and ineffective political opposition” as a reason for people pouring into Turkey’s streets.

‘Same Old Country’

It’s a view that echoes among protesters, even though their primary target was Erdogan. Konda’s survey last week of 4,411 demonstrators found that 41 percent said they voted for the Republicans in 2011, and 31 percent of them would do so again. The protestors were evenly split between men and women, with an average age of 28. Just 2 percent said they’d voted for Erdogan.

“The opposition parties don’t give any hope about turning these protests into political benefits,” said Osman Ulagay, author of “Who Will Own This Country?” a study of political and sociological changes in Turkey. As a result, the protesters “don’t feel represented.” Still, he said, the Republicans are likely to remain the country’s only alternative to the AKP.

For some demonstrators that was a dispiriting thought.

“We have achieved a lot here,” said Okan Ozkan, the 19-year-old leader of a group called Turkish Youth Unity, at its stand in Gezi, before police stormed and cleared the park on June 15. “But we are afraid that as soon as the protests are over it will be the same old country again.”

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