For the first time, an opposition party in Turkey is setting the agenda

For the first time, an opposition party in Turkey is setting the agenda

The lack of efficient opposition has been one of the key reasons behind the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) consecutive electoral victories. On three occasions, when there were relative setbacks on its electoral victories, the reasons were more about discontent toward the ruling party and less about improvement in the opposition parties’ performances. The relative loss in AKP votes in the 2009 local elections were due to the economic crisis, while hesitancy toward the presidential system, favored by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was added to economic concerns that made the AKP lose its majority in parliament in the June 2015 general elections. These two again played an important role in the referendum for the presidential system, which although brought the desired result to the ruling party, it did not make Erdoğan happy due to the narrow margin of votes. 

Erdoğan did voice, from time to time, how the opposition in Turkey made his job easy. Yet as he consolidated this power, he also made sure to further weaken the opposition. The opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while officially is on the opposition side has become an unofficial coalition partner of the AKP. The Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which in 2015 came to a point of nearly being in a tight race with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in terms of popularity, has suffered huge losses. It has lost the trust of its Turkish voters and has become less attractive among its traditional Kurdish base. In addition, the incarceration of its senior officials is making the HDP’s life more difficult.

That leaves the CHP as the most significant opponent to the ruling AKP in parliament.

A key criticism toward the CHP was the fact that it could never set Turkey’s agenda and was always held hostage by the ruling party’s agenda. With the “justice march,” initiated by its soft-spoken leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP succeeded for the first time in setting the agenda. 

The government, especially Erdoğan, has been disproportionally critical toward this peaceful effort calling for justice, one of the most sacred universal rights. The CHP leader and anyone among the thousands that have been accompanying him in his march for the past two weeks have abstained from using any party symbol in order to unite everyone who is seeking justice. And as the popularity of the march grew, the rhetoric of the ruling elites became harsher. With the march nearing Istanbul, Erdoğan accused the CHP of siding with terrorism.

Kılıçdaroğlu began the march on June 15 after former journalist-turned-lawmaker Enis Berberoğlu, with the CHP, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for leaking classified information to a newspaper. Thousands have been sent to jail after the July 15 coup attempt on accusations of being a member of the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ), believed to be behind last year’s coup attempt. The president therefore wants to equate Kılıçdaroğlu and his supporters with the Gülenists. Similar to his previous effort to equate those who were against the presidential system with terrorists has not worked; on the contrary, it backfired, according to pollsters who work for the AKP.

The effort here therefore is to rather discourage people from participating in the march. In addition, calling justice marchers terrorists could encourage some die-hard AKP supporters to target the march, which could lead to some skirmishes - another factor that would discourage potential participants. 

The CHP leader has done a remarkable job by minimizing the risks, asking his supporters to react only with applauds at passersby who are showing their opposition to the march.

One feels as though some among the circles close to the AKP feel sorry there hasn’t been a major incident that will give the government a reason to ban the march. 

What all this tells us is that the president and the government is extremely unhappy about the “justice march.” If the president and the government are concerned about such a peaceful act, then many would conclude that the ruling elites fear their legitimacy is on thin ice.