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Turkish opposition seeks to challenge Erdogan at his own game

Turkey’s opposition, which has long failed to put up a coherent attitude to the government’s foreign policy, is now turning to a hawkish rhetoric that Erdogan himself might envy.
Turkey opposition

A series of nationalist outbursts by Turkey’s main opposition leader has fueled doubts about whether the opposition can relieve the country’s fraught foreign policy as Turkey heads to crucial elections.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently moved to reconcile with Israel and Arab heavyweights after years of hostilities that left Turkey largely isolated in the region. It was against this backdrop that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the Republican Party (CHP), fired broadsides at Israel and Saudi Arabia on June 26, not mincing his words at Greece as well.

Recalling the deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound ferry packed with pro-Palestinian Turkish activists in 2010, the CHP leader tweeted, “Martyring [Turkish] citizens in international waters comes at a price. My message to Israel is that this issue is not closed for us yet.”

He proceeded to rebuke Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was greeted with state honors in Ankara last week. Before the meeting, a Turkish court case over the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was halted and transferred to Riyadh earlier this year. Referring to the crown prince, who is widely believed to have sanctioned the killing, Kilicdaroglu wrote, “Committing a murder on our soil comes at a price as well. We haven’t settled the score with him. He may be twisting Erdogan around his little finger, but Turkey is a great state and he’ll be made to pay the price for what he did.”

And echoing Ankara’s concerns that Athens is arming demilitarized islands in the Aegean Sea, the CHP leader reminded Greece of the Turkish victory against invading Greek troops a century ago. 

The CHP’s response to the government’s foreign policies has long been a mixture of criticism and half-hearted support, but now that Erdogan is trying to reconcile with the Arab-Israel axis, while escalating tensions with Greece and Iran, the main opposition seems to be falling into the trap of emulating Erdogan in the hope of wooing nationalist-conservative voters.

The confusion in the CHP’s foreign policy rhetoric and stances has several causes. First of all, the CHP sees itself as a guardian of the republic and the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic. Ultimately, such a vision often requires backing government policies.

Kilicdaroglu maintains that his party cannot cross the red lines of the state, even though the CHP has harshly criticized the government’s slide to belligerent and interventionist foreign policies in recent years. In a May 14 speech, for instance, he said, “Foreign policy has to be national, meaning that there could be no government-opposition [rivalry] on foreign policy. We have to stand together as a nation on foreign policy.”

Another factor underlying the confusion is the party’s zigzagging between nationalist and pro-change currents. 

A nationalist-Euroasianist wing within the party has taken stands meshing with Erdogan’s policies on an array of issues such as the pursuit of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on Iraqi territory, military operations in Syria targeting Kurdish groups affiliated with the PKK, the intervention in Libya, Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, the confrontational game played in the Eastern Mediterranean in line with the Blue Homeland concept, tensions with Greece over territorial disputes in the Aegean and the Cyprus conflict. Occasionally, this wing has also questioned Turkey’s partnership with NATO and the European Union, suggesting closer ties with Russia and China. 

At the same time, some CHP members believe the party’s social-democrat leaning should reflect not only on economic and social matters, but also on foreign policy. This approach was translated to action in parliament in October 2021, when, in a first, the CHP voted against renewing the government’s mandate for military action in Iraq and Syria.

The party, which had grudgingly backed earlier authorizations, questioned the gains of Turkey’s military involvement in Syria, suggesting that it has deviated from original objectives. In previous votes, the CHP would harshly criticize the government but would eventually back the motions, citing national security interests and the safety of Turkish soldiers.

Similarly, the CHP withheld support for an 18-month extension of the Turkish military mission in Libya in a parliamentary vote last month.

In justifying this new stance, party members have argued that the government has misused the mandates for domestic political purposes instead of focusing on protecting Turkey’s regional interests.

The votes on cross-border military action have pushed the CHP to face up to its internal contradictions. An ossified camp in the party has argued that, despite all government missteps, opposing the mandate for Syria and Iraq would be against national interests. The same camp has had misgivings also on dialogue with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).  The other camp, which advocates adherence to social democratic principles, has argued that backing the mandate would amount to backing Erdogan’s Syria policy and that previous mandates have failed to bear fruit.

The CHP’s new stance has triggered ferocious attacks by pro-government quarters, which attribute the shift to an alleged covert partnership between the CHP and the HDP. 

As part of tactics to discredit its opponents, the government has sought to equate the HDP with the PKK, which Turkey designates as a terrorist group, and portray the CHP as a HDP cohort. Such onslaughts have only intensified over criticism of Ankara’s regional policies. Retired ambassador Unal Cevikoz, now a CHP parliament member and a foreign policy adviser to Kilicdaroglu, was targeted last year after he cautioned against Turkey's insistence on a large maritime zone in the Mediterranean.

A third factor behind the CHP’s zigzagging is the party’s effort to maintain its fledgling alliance with five other parties, formed with the aim of defeating the AKP and its nationalist allies in the upcoming elections. The Good Party, the second largest force in the alliance, sticks to a nationalist-statist leaning, as evidenced by its support for the latest extensions of the Syria, Iraq and Libya mandates.  

The Good Party had voted against those mandates in 2020. To justify its subsequent change of heart, it argued that growing US military presence in Greece had “spoiled” Athens, which, in turn, endangered Turkey’s interests in Libya and that the Syrian Kurds’ attempt to establish a “terrorist state” should be thwarted. 

Yet, CHP and Good Party leaders maintain that their divergence on the mandates do not amount to a rift because the six-party initiative does not involve joint action on current matters. Such flexibility may help the six parties keep up their partnership but it impedes the emergence of an integrated opposition to the AKP.

Nevertheless, the CHP leadership expects Erdogan to exploit foreign policy issues even more intensively ahead of the elections and has discussed the need for a tactical approach to squeeze the government with its own arguments.

On June 1, Erdogan challenged Kilicdaroglu to answer 10 questions, including whether he backs cross-border operations against the PKK and its Syrian affiliates and “his own state’s policy” on Sweden’s and Finland’s bid to join NATO. He also asked whether the CHP leader “stands on the side of his country in the national struggle waged in the Mediterranean and the Aegean or on the side of those against us.” 

Kilicdaroglu replied that he supports cross-border military operations. On NATO, he said Ankara’s demands from Sweden and Finland were justified, but argued for silent diplomacy instead of high-pitch bickering. Turkey needs NATO, he asserted. At the same time, he advocated stronger pressure on Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean and even challenged Erdogan to “take action on the issue of militarized islands if you have the heart.” 

So, a tactic of meeting nationalist bluster with nationalist bluster or hitting Erdogan with his own U-turns appears to have prevailed in the CHP now. 

A CHP source who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor that the party’s declared foreign policy principles remain unchanged and denied any compromises to keep the six-party partnership intact. “This rhetoric aims to turn up pressure on Erdogan in domestic politics. It will likely continue until the elections, in various tones. But there will be no essential change in our foreign policy vision,” the source said.

Nevertheless, this raises the prospect of the opposition vying with the ruling party on who is more nationalist. And amid Ankara’s normalization efforts with regional rivals, an opposition taking up the nationalist card, too, might not set Erdogan back as much as expected.

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