Will ‘no’ campaign lead to a new center-right party?

Will ‘no’ campaign lead to a new center-right party?

Turkish society is divided right down the middle as the country heads to a referendum on April 16 to decide on whether to replace the current parliamentary system with one with an executive presidency. According to the latest polls, half of the voters are on the “yes” front, while the other half is firmly “no,” with tensions between the two camps rising every day. 

While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials lead the “yes” campaign for the upcoming referendum on charter changes – with a little support from the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – the “no” campaign sees much more diverse participation.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have kept a relatively low profile during the campaign, while the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), with 13 of its lawmakers and hundreds of mayors and officials jailed, is mostly embroiled in its own problems.

This leaves an open space for “civilian initiatives.” From Turkish Bar Association (TBB) head Metin Feyzioğlu to former soldiers who were on trial in the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot cases, and from former CHP leader Deniz Baykal to potential CHP leader Muharrem İnce, many people have been traveling to remote parts of Anatolia to meet locals and try to convince them to vote “no.”     

Such mobilization from various segments of society and the political spectrum is unprecedented in Turkey.

Very significant support for the “no” camp comes from former – and some current – MHP members who unsuccessfully challenged MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli last year to an extraordinary congress for leadership change.

Since the struggle within the party started, hundreds of MHP officials, including current and former MHP lawmakers, have been expelled from the party.

Many others resigned – or were dismissed – after they criticized Bahçeli’s decision to support the AKP-led charter changes.

Many pundits and pollsters believe that at least half of MHP voters, with some putting the number as high as 80 percent, will vote “no” in the referendum despite Bahçeli’s call for “yes.”

Former MHP lawmakers who are actively campaigning, especially Sinan Oğan and Meral Akşener, who were both planning to run for the party’s top post, face problems in holding meetings in Anatolian towns, although their visits are closely followed by locals.

Akşener, who was Turkey’s first – and so far only – female interior minister from November 1996 to June 1997, addressed thousands of people in İzmir’s Gündoğdu Square on March 26, in a rally covered live by Halk TV, which has close ties to the CHP. 

The popularity of Akşener, who was once denounced by Bahçeli for having links to the Fethullah Gülen network, and other “no” campaigners on the political right, may be the early signs of a new political movement on the right. 

It is no secret that many politicians on the center-right who have been a part of the AKP since day one are not happy about the party’s latest situation. 

Among those said to be discontent are former President Abdullah Gül and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Both names have been targets of fierce attacks from pro-Erdoğan media figures, who say “it’s the Reis [leader, a nickname for President Erdoğan] that matters, not the party.”

The AKP has been enjoying the luxury of being the biggest recipient of center right and conservative votes without any major challenge. As it consolidated the party’s constituency with a more conservative shift in the last couple of years, some secular center-right votes in the metropolises shifted to the CHP.

Akşener’s popularity in İzmir is significantly important. Although the Aegean port province now seems to be a bastion of the CHP, the real voting characteristics in the city used to be center right. For example, in 2002, the Genç Parti, a populist center-right party founded a few months before the Nov. 3 elections by businessman Cem Uzan, received 17.5 percent of the votes in the city, half a point more than the AKP, coming in second behind the CHP with 30 percent. In 1995, when there were two major players on the center-right, the total votes of the True Path Party (DYP), Motherland Party (ANAP) and Islamist Virtue Party (RP) – which Erdoğan and Gül were members of – exceeded 60 percent. Secular concerns have helped the CHP appeal to a much bigger constituency in the city, receiving almost 47 percent of the vote in the Nov. 1, 2016, elections, but some of those votes are protest votes that could easily go another way.  

Akşener’s popularity might be considered a sign that voters in İzmir and across the country are ready to give a chance to a new populist political movement.