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Turkish opposition stumbles on united platform – Al-Monitor

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« Turkey’s opposition parties have so far been unable to gain traction among large segments of the Turkish public ahead of the 2023 elections » says Pinar Tremblay in Al-Monitor. 

Despite fast-growing economic challenges, Turkey’s political opposition seems to have so far failed to broaden their core supporter base as recent polls suggest support for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party is increasing. 

After several attempts, six opposition parties got together for talks Feb. 28, and then again a month later. For years, Turkey’s political opposition has been criticized for being “too divided” against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pragmatic political alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party. Now six of the political parties have managed to sit together and pen a document with the common goal of reinstituting Turkey’s parliamentary system that was replaced by the executive presidency in 2018, paving the way for Erdogan’s one-man rule. The six parties also announced they would conduct monthly meetings.

Although the attemtps at unity are recent and the elections are still over a year away, these gatherings did not generate much excitement on Turkey’s social media sites. Indeed, some of the most popular reactions were from Erdogan supporters who simply ridiculed the process. 

Turkey’s prominent pollster Metropoll‘s March poll showed that 46.3% of respondents did not even know about the opposition’s Feb. 28 gathering. More importantly, some 58% of those respondents were among the “undecided voters,” ahead of Turkey’s presidential and general elections scheduled to be held in June 2023. So why has Turkey’s major opposition parties united front against Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party failed to garner public attention? The question is crucial amid rampant discussions whether Turkey’s political opposition will be able to change the country’s authoritarian drift.

In fact, the conditions for Turkey’s political opposition to thrive appear ripe. Turkey’s economy is in turmoil. Uncontrollable inflation, rising unemployment rates, looming fears of food insecurity and fast growing poverty have affected the majority of the population. The challenging economic situation alone would normally increase the public’s yearning for alternatives to the current government. Yet the efforts of the opposition to increase its support seems ineffective to mobilize the public.

We can provide three main explanations for lack of excitement for a united opposition.

First, the opposition seems to have failed to inform the public in detail about the goals and outcomes of their unification attempts. 

Seren Selvin Korkmaz, political analyst and executive director of IstanPol, told Al-Monitor, “A holistic and pre-planned media campaign of this get-together was not generated. What is the purpose of this gathering?” 

Indeed, the leaders have stopped short of declaring a formation of a coalition or naming a candidate to run against Erdogan. “They published a document of more than 40 pages, a monumental publication that is not easy to create for six parties. But I repeat insistently, their recommendation to reinstate the parliamentary system must be communicated to the masses in a language that would resonate with them. How is their cooperation to be reflected in the price of bread, for example? The six-party alliance has not developed a strategy to communicate that effectively to the public yet,” Korkmaz noted, adding that the public needs to see concise results, like two-minute infographics explaining the goals.

Seasoned journalist Can Dundar commented that it is praiseworthy for the center-left and center-right parties to sit down together to challenge the increasingly repressive regime. However, it was unclear how and what exactly they planned to do. How can we get excited about a process we fail to comprehend? 

Another challenge was mentioned by Murat Somer, professor of political science at Koc University in Istanbul. He said that foreign media outlets were not invited to the opposition parties’ meetings, and that the lack of foreign press makes these gatherings less accessible to the Turkish public. Given the heavy government control over the Turkish media outlets, the opposition needs every outlet to make its mark. So far, they seem to have failed in their public relations campaign.

Korkmaz also stressed that the first large gathering Feb. 28 failed to excite the public. “For the first time we saw pro-government news outlets’ ratings surpassed that of HalkTV [one of the few pro-opposition news channels] because all eyes were on the war [in Ukraine],” he said. 

Another explanation is how uneven the playing field is for the opposition parties under an authoritarian regime. Although it is a promising idea for six opposition parties to get together, two of these parties have never participated in an election. Four of them have miniscule vote share in the opinion polls, so one cannot help but ask where is the Kurdish political movement? Why wasn’t Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party included in the process? 

Birol Baskan, a political scientist, told Al-Monitor, “I view the lack of public enthusiasm for these gatherings as a result of the opposition’s failure to generate a hope for change. The opposition is almost dead — quite sedate that it cannot excite the masses. They cannot say anything new.” 

Indeed, the inability of the incumbent to govern successfully does not automatically translate into trust for opposition parties. 

The third explanation has to do with the public’s expectations. “We need to reevaluate what is expected of the opposition. The generic line was that they cannot succeed because they are divided. However, we see unification does not always guarantee success either,” Yektan Turkyilmaz, anthropologist at the Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Central European University in Vienna, said.

He told Al-Monitor, “We must reenvision how populations who have lived under authoritarian regimes for a while will behave. The voters must be provided easy to comprehend explanations of how they are worse off living under a repressive regime and that this system is not their only option for stability and security.” 

The quest for a strongman regime resembles an addictive behavior. If the six-party opposition lacks a leader and fails to explain what their collaborative message is, one cannot expect public interest to grow. 

Al-Monitor, April 11, 2022, Pinar Tremblay, Photo/Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters

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