Turkey’s opposition poses no challenge
It may sound inappropriate to complain about the opposition in Turkey under the current circumstances, but I have started to think otherwise. It is true that the ruling party knows no limits when it comes to suppressing dissenting voices and opposition parties. But opposition parties, and especially the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), wield much more legitimate power to counter the attacks than powerless NGOs and single individuals. Unfortunately, opposition parties have been unable to challenge the government’s policies not only because they are suppressed but also because they are inherently weak.
When the government began criminalizing the Kurdish opposition by manipulating nationalistic elements of public opinion, the CHP declined to intervene in order to avoid losing its own nationalist credentials. The CHP also failed to oppose the government’s move to strip the immunities of minority-friendly Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MPs. It also failed to resist the removal of HDP mayors.
All these steps were grave violations of democratic political rights. But in truth Kurdish politicians also played into the hands of the ruling party by discrediting themselves. The miscommunication began with the HDP’s failure to confine itself to the democratic political realm. Party grandees even adopted elements of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) discourse and committed themselves to marginal acts, such as attending the funerals of PKK guerrillas (and even the funeral of a suicide bomber at one point).
It is also true that HDP politicians have put the CHP in a difficult position. As the Kurdish issue is an important key to opening up democracy in Turkey, prominent Kurdish politicians must not discredit the efforts of democratic dissent. Unfortunately, the opportunity appears to be lost for the time being.
Recently, the tide of criminalization has turned against the CHP, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seeks to delegitimize the main opposition by any means possible. The AKP’s new line of attack involves accusing the CHP of having Gülenist connections in order to implicate it in the July 2016 coup attempt.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even started to accuse the CHP of treason, recently announcing his intention to refer to the party as the “Republican Treason Party” instead of the “Republican People’s Party.” In Turkish, the words for “People” (Halk) and “Treason” (Hıyanet) both start with the letter H.
Such a move should have been perceived as the ultimate insult, but the CHP has largely failed to respond accordingly. It instead appears to tolerate the aggression as just one more example in a long line of attacks against it. Indeed, one of the CHP’s major weaknesses is its failure to recognize and understand political priorities.
An excellent example of this shortcoming is way the CHP has focused on the issue of corruption and the Zarrab trial in the U.S., without doing enough to repudiate efforts made to delegitimize both itself and the opposition in Turkey more generally. This does not mean that it should not address the issue of corruption, rather that the CHP should also be able to see the higher stakes. The AKP’s efforts to effectively delegitimize the CHP are the ultimate omen of political suppression, whereas corruption is simply an abuse of political power.
A CHP mayor of an Istanbul district was recently removed from office over corruption allegations, and party members see this as a political move. However, only empty words have come from CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Time and time again he and his allies fail to locate the gravity of political intimidations imposed on them and other opposition members by the AKP.
To summarize, Turkey has entered a period of ambiguity where the whims of the AKP determine not only rights and freedoms but also the legitimacy of opposition parties. Threats of criminalization and de-legitimization both limit and also intimidate Turkey’s political space. The worst part of the situation is that neither the minority-friendly HDP nor the secularist CHP has been able to challenge the ruling party’s politics.