ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone at the opening of the new legislative year on Tuesday, inviting parliament’s deeply and bitterly polarized members to work together to lift the country’s democratic standards.
But signs of the deep divisions among parties were apparent from the outset, when lawmakers from the two largest opposition groupings did not stand and applaud Erdogan’s entrance, and the president signaled that the parliament’s pro-Kurdish party may be unwelcome in his new drive for unity.
“Let us not put our political rivalries ahead of our responsibility to our people,” Erdogan said in a speech broadcast live. “I believe that anyone who doesn’t say, ‘My nation first,’ does not have the right to sit beneath the roof of this sacred institution. I invite all circles who distance themselves from terrorism and violence to meet on common ground.”
The last sentence may have been aimed at the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which supports a negotiated resolution of the three-decade insurgency waged by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Erdogan has sought to depict the HDP as the rebel group's political wing, which the party refutes.
After his speech, Erdogan told reporters parliament could weigh a proposal to reduce the required first-round share of the presidential vote to 40% or more. Currently, the winner must take 50% plus one vote.
Erdogan’s party may see the change as a remedy for a slump in its popular support. But the president added that it may be too soon to “tire the people” with yet another change to Turkey’s governing regime.
Turkey just emerged from a bitterly contested electoral campaign in which the opposition snatched several mayorships from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including the capital Ankara and the largest city of Istanbul, where the opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu delivered a painful blow by winning not once but twice, after Erdogan forced a do-over election in June.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Birgun newspaper late last week he saw a “high chance” of early elections due to discontent with the AKP, even if politicians, including members of his own party, are reluctant to return to the polls.
AKP officials dismissed Kilicdaroglu’s claim, arguing it was far too early to consider snap elections, not least because it would reduce Erdogan’s tenure in office. He is allowed to hold two five-year terms and is loath to cut short his first, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported.
The president is also concerned about the impact of new political upstarts led by his erstwhile lieutenants and first wants to gauge their popularity, as well as potential alliances between parties, before risking a new vote, the daily reported.
Ahmet Davutoglu, who served as Erdogan’s prime minister and foreign minister, quit the AKP last month before it could expel him and is seeking to tap into “widespread unhappiness” with the current administration. And Ali Babacan, Erdogan’s former economy minister, left the AKP in July and has said he will establish a new party by the end of the year. Babacan is working closely with Abdullah Gul, a former president who was once Erdogan’s closest political ally.
Both Davutoglu and Babacan are calculating that Erdogan could call an early election a year from now if the economy recovers sufficiently from a sharp slowdown to help his re-election bid, a source close to the Babacan camp said on condition of anonymity.
But one of the parties that emerges could work with the AKP to right the ship, he said. A new center-right party could become an alternative to Erdogan’s ultranationalist coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has outsized influence over policy, especially after Erdogan’s recent tack to the right.
Others expect Babacan to challenge Erdogan for the presidency, because the former economy minister is more palatable to the broader opposition than Gul. The latter had considered a running as a unity candidate in 2018 against Erdogan, but Meral Aksener, chairwoman of the right-wing Good (Iyi) Party and the CHP’s electoral alliance partner, is said to have blocked his nomination.
Kilicdaroglu welcomed Babacan and Davutoglu’s pledge to adhere to democratic principles as “very valuable” but did not comment on whether the CHP could partner with either in the next election.
Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that the opposition bloc is itself fracturing over the role of the HDP, the second-largest opposition party. The leftist HDP’s support was critical to the success of Imamoglu, as well as other CHP mayoral candidates in large cities.
Aksener has said she hasn’t broached the HDP’s role in the alliance with Kilicdaroglu but that she would “say no” should the CHP overtly join forces with the HDP. “We don’t look favorably on the HDP’s communication with the PKK,” she told HaberTurk.
The media has made much of a warm encounter between Aksener and Erdogan at an August presidential reception, leading to conjecture he could invite her to join his coalition and thwart the political arithmetic of Babacan and Davutoglu, who are expected to lure AKP lawmakers to gain a foothold in parliament.
However, Lutfu Turkkan, the Iyi Party’s deputy chairman, ruled out joining forces with Erdogan. “We will not be a partner to the oppression and distress of the Justice and Development Party, which has driven the country to this state in its 17 years, nor we will be in an alliance that includes the HDP,” he said in an interview broadcast live by HaberTurk.
Besides, bringing the Iyi Party into the governing fold would likely embitter MHP chairman Devlet Bahceli, who quashed Aksener’s leadership challenge and then ousted her.
Neither Aksener nor Bahceli attended parliament’s opening due to illness. Bahceli is suffering an upper respiratory tract infection, his party said. The 71-year-old has been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks.
Parliament’s power has been vastly diminished since an executive presidency went into effect last year with Erdogan’s election. The opposition has vowed to dismantle the new regime, saying it has led Turkey down an authoritarian path. Some have linked unhappiness with Erdogan’s vast powers to a decline in the AKP’s ranks.
Regardless of who wins the next election, the AKP believes the executive presidential system is here to stay. “Even if Gul, Imamoglu or Aksener were to win the presidential selection, they couldn’t bring back the old system, nor would they want to. Because no one would relinquish the powers given to the president under the new system,” Cumhuriyet cited unnamed AKP sources as saying.
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