During the Victory Day celebration on Aug. 30, a photo showing two opposition leaders with their hands respectfully clasped in front of them as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked by became a sore sight for supporters of opposition parties because it was interpreted as those leaders bowing to Erdogan.
Yet the real reason behind the anger over such a passing moment is because the political opposition is on hiatus in Turkey. Not a day passes where the Justice and Development Party's (AKP's) policy choices do not lead to devastating consequences: imported meat sickens people; houses illegally built upon river beds threaten lives during floods; a train accident due to improper repairs and lack of staff have caused scores of preventable deaths; major construction projects are stopped midway through without any proper explanation; privatized companies declare bankruptcy, coaxing troubled banks to take on further unsecured loans with billions of dollars lost. This is just a brief list of events that took place over the last couple of months, indicating the years of failed government policies.
The loss of value in the lira followed by skyrocketing prices of consumer goods, rapidly increasing inflation rates and rising unemployment are ringing alarm bells in lower- and middle-class Turkey.
As Al-Monitor columnist Amberin Zaman reported, Erdogan’s approval ratings have plunged almost 10% from July to August 2018. When a government fails repeatedly in any democratic setup, it would present a golden opportunity for opposition parties to score points. The opposition’s job is to capitalize on the public’s human and financial suffering and increase pressures on the government. Yet it's puzzling that the Turkish opposition is on hiatus. Their rhetoric, limited mostly to social media platforms, is stale and out of sync at best. Al-Monitor asked opposition party members, activists, lawmakers and advisers about this puzzling hiatus and found four main reasons why the opposition is almost invisible in Turkey.
First, the government's divide and conquer strategy worked. Sixteen years of AKP majority government and strongman policies have managed to cripple and silence the opposition parties. That is, ultranationalists have mostly been co-opted, and the remaining part is too busy with their internal problems. The Islamists' leader, Temel Karamollaoglu, was praised as a power broker and possible kingmaker as recently as March 2018; he was a disappointment and received a mere 1.34% of the national vote. He has since been invisible and unheard from except for a few tweets.
On the left, there are two parties. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party is blacklisted, with its leaders and most members in custody. The party members are diligently ostracized from all state events. The main opposition Republican People's Party also has its most outspoken members in jail while the party itself suffers from internal disputes.
Election alliances have proven ineffective in generating a common platform for opposition parties to rally against Erdogan. A professor of political science who works at a prominent state university in Istanbul and wished to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “The left-wing parties failed to protect their own lawmakers from the abuses of government; how can they serve the people? They have failed to go beyond identity politics and now cannot call for unified action against the fast-approaching economic crisis. They are too busy with their internal troubles and appear lethargic to the public’s state of concern. If the whole country were on the streets chanting against the Palace, I am sure the opposition parties would be the last to hear their screams. They have no strategy to challenge Erdogan properly let alone win public support.”
Second, there has been a fear of a boomerang. The Palace controls most of the Turkish media in Turkey — so much so that even the most credible arguments of the opposition parties were cherry-picked and presented as anti-Turkish and offensive to the public’s values and beliefs. While AKP members’ most outrageous words on most sacred values, such as Islam or the army, have been sidelined and tolerated, the AKP has managed to manipulate opposition parties’ criticism diligently. All attempts to hold Erdogan and his men accountable have backfired. An adviser (choosing anonymity) to a prominent opposition lawmaker told Al-Monitor, “Every time we try to tell the truth to the public, we are the ones thrown to the lions. We face social media lynching, then prosecution. Over and over, we have provided evidence of corruption, abuse of power and always we were the ones prosecuted. I think the opposition is tired now. We figure it is best to leave Erdogan and the AKP to their own devices to collapse.” Another activist who also asked for anonymity said, “They thrive on our struggle to have a voice. When we provide a valid claim, if it becomes visible enough that they cannot ignore it, then they first present it in their papers as partial truth then start throwing mud at the person who brought the issue to daylight. Our claims are not proven wrong, but we are punished still. The worst is that the public does not stay in solidarity with us.”
The disappointment is deep and mutual between the opposition and the public. It could be as strong as their resentment against the government’s failed policies. The opposition fears that if they speak up loudly on the economic crisis, they will be labeled as collaborators of “foreign agents” who are presented as the culprit of economic troubles.
The third reason for the invisibility of the opposition is a culture of obedience in the political party system. According to the Turkish political party system, the party bosses decide who will be placed where in elections. The first condition to become a lawmaker is to please party leadership rather than their constituencies. Tugce Varol, a scientific adviser for 21st Century Turkey Institute, told Al-Monitor, “The lawmakers themselves cannot do much without the blessings of the party leaders; hence, most of them are not really qualified on their own to be a part of the strong opposition. The nature of the political system is based on obedience. Plus, party establishments are financially dependent on the state. All the funds for their political parties and campaigns come from the Palace now.” Given that effective opposition depends heavily upon the individual leader's shoulders, we see how difficult it is to get out of the vicious circle here. Ultranationalists have chosen to bandwagon with the Palace to enjoy the benefits of political power. With little to deliver, opposition party leaders become more introvert and insecure at best.
The fourth and final reason is that the opposition does not know what to do to satisfy the public’s demands. As odd as this sounds, several prominent opposition members asked, “Tell us what can we do?” indicating not only their exhaustion but also lack of ability to come out of hibernation. The opposition has run out of ideas and venues to stand up against Erdogan and gain support from the public. Their common and righteous complaints are, “We have no media, no money, and no grassroots organization to rely on.” They do not seem to have a plan to get out of this lethargic mood. Several advisers to lawmakers have also expressed their fear of armed conflict. The situation in Syria and the abrupt appearance of armed groups on the last election night have “sent chills to the spines of responsible people,” as one lawmaker’s aide who requested anonymity put it. She added, “The Palace and members of the AKP and the MHP can be reckless. They are always in the right. They view this as a war, and they are victorious. We have literally become second-class citizens in our own country. In fascism, there is no legitimate opposition. We have no proper connections left to the public, the NGOs or civil society establishments. One by one they have all been eliminated. The legal and peaceful ways of resistance are limited and all are quite risky on multiple levels. You need to understand it is not just personal fears. Leaders fear to be labeled as the provocateur of domestic unrest."