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Opinion

Why Turkey needs a better opposition

Turkey’s democracy suffers from an opposition deficit, while a space has cleared for real political competition.

Last Modified: 15 Jul 2013 14:30
Galip Dalay

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.
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Turkish anti-government protesters demonstrate at the entrance of Gezi park on the first day or Ramadan [AFP]

The recent events in Turkey have been well discussed in terms of the government response. The (mis)handling of the protests have drawn wide scrutiny from both domestic and international audiences. However, little mentioned, but no less important an issue is the role, or lack thereof, of the opposition throughout these protests in particular, and in Turkish politics in general. One of the main reasons the protestors took to the streets in order to protest the government and its policies is the inadequacy of the main opposition parties in Turkey to transform dissent into effective politics.

The protestors believe that their demands are neither being adequately represented nor addressed in the political sphere. In other words, the parties that they voted for, especially the main opposition Republican People Party (CHP), have failed to give voice to their demands. According to a survey conducted by KONDA, an independent polling firm, 41 per cent of people attending the Gezi Park Protest voted for the CHP in the 2011 election, unenthusiastically. This is a very high percentage given that 17 per cent of protestors indicated that they were under the voting age at the time, while 13 per cent stated they did not vote and 7 per cent admitted to have cast empty ballots.

Nevertheless, demonstrators voiced uneasiness with the prospect of CHP taking a more prominent role in the protests, as expressed by party chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, “protestors don’t want us on the front lines”.  

This begets two questions: Why do the protestors, a significant majority of whom voted for the CHP, feel under represented? And given that the composition of parliament, in terms of seat distribution between the governing AK Party and the main opposition CHP, remained virtually unchanged over the last decade: Why should the CHP constituency feel less represented than before? An analysis of the latter would make the former easier to comprehend.

One peculiarity of Turkey’s politics is that there has always been a distinction between governing and ruling the country.  While the role of governing was entrusted to the elected political parties, the task of ruling remained as the prerogative of the secular-Kemalist establishment composed of military and high bureaucracy.

Centre and periphery in Turkish politics

This dichotomy mirrors renowned scholar Prof. Serif Mardin’s concept of centre and periphery in Turkish politics. While centre denoted sections of society that identified itself strongly with the organising ideology of the Kemalist-secular state, enjoyed a privileged position economically and politically, and fit seamlessly into the establishment’s conception of ideal citizen and society, the periphery represented disenfranchised, disillusioned, and disaffected part of the society. Latter group’s demands and quests have mostly been regarded suspicious, if not alarming, by the establishment.

Most of Turkey’s governing parties have been representative of the periphery, which was made up of lower socio-economic strata of society, religious or socially conservative groups. Whereas the upper middle classes, secular-Kemalist segment of society has been represented by the components of centre: high military and civilian bureaucracy, and CHP politically. This has not only been the main picture of Turkey’s politics, it has also represented the cardinal weakness of its democracy. Civilian government, until recently, had always been inferior to the ruling military - bureaucratic alliance.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), for a majority of it’s over a decade rule, was no exception in this regard. While politically in power, AK Party acted as if it were the opposition in its interactions and struggle with Turkey’s Kemalist establishment. Conversely, while politically in opposition, CHP acted as political spokesperson for the established order and supported the status quo.

These diverse approaches taken by both parties manifested itself in dealing with almost all major issues that occupied Turkey’s agenda, from seeking a settlement to Cyprus and Kurdish issues to extending greater rights to Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities and fighting with the military tutelage regime. The AK Party adopted a more progressive approach and made the case for policy changes on these issues, contrasting the stance of the Kemalist establishment, while CHP stuck to traditional statist line and supported the maintanence of status quo. 

During this period, 2002 - 2009/2010, segments of society that demanded change in the political, economic or social sphere were mainly represented by the AK Party. Lower to middle classes, socially conservative or religious groups, a significant portion of Kurds and centre-right constituted AK Party’s main constituency. In contrast the sections of society who were content with the established Kemalist order, namely upper to middle classes, secular and Kemalists, were represented by the fiercely secular military - bureaucratic alliance, and then by CHP. Thus, during this period, major parts of society felt represented in one way or another in the system.

Why democratisation created the question of representation for some

Yet, starting from around 2009, when the military was gradually forced back to the barracks and the disproportionate influence of bureaucracy on the politics were relatively constrained,  the groups that had previously been represented by the military-bureaucracy alliance began to feel increasingly unrepresented in the political sphere. The same process enabled the AK Party to transition from being nominal to holding real power in the system.

Paradoxically, the democratisation of Turkey through the purging of the political sphere from undemocratic forces has given birth to the question of representation for Kemalist-secular segment of society. CHP’s failure to fill the vacuum by sticking to its old and ineffective-style of opposition has only aggravated this feeling of not being represented. In this respect, the recent protests were not only the culmination of disillusionment towards the government policies, but it is also the result of the same feeling, perhaps even more acutely felt, towards the opposition’s failure to fill the void. 

This feeling of alienation and disillusionment can only be overcome through the emergence of an effective and actual opposition. Unfortunately, CHP’s recent record does not provide cause for optimism. Despite a short period of promising developments following the election of the current chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the party has been backsliding and once again clinging onto its old style of opposition. CHP’s MP Safak Pavey’s attempt to frame the protest in the overspent language of secularism versus Islamism discourse is a case in point.

CHP, of course, should be responsive to the demands of secular and Kemalist sections of society. Yet, at the same time it should avoid falling prisoner to its old style of politics. The significant level of economic and political progress Turkey achieved over the last decade has transformed voters’ profiles for whom the old style of doing opposition politics is no longer acceptable. If CHP genuinely desires to be a real social democratic alternative, as its leaders like to claim in international forums, to the governing AK Party, then it should demonstrate that by pursuing a progressive agenda. 

The ongoing Kurdish peace process, the drafting of a new constitution, especially the rewriting of the citizenship clause (which in its current form is highly nationalistic), and the debate on decentralisation of power provide good cases to pursue what it has thus far failed to pursue: a progressive political agenda. Doing so would not only render CHP to become a voice for those who feel they are not being heard by the political establishment, but could pave the way for it to emerge as a credible and effective social democratic opposition.

With the tutelage regime collapsing on itself, the space for a real political competition is being cleared. Unfortunately, as glaringly illustrated by recent protests, Turkey’s inept opposition has so far miserably failed to capitalise on that. To put it differently, Turkey’s (imperfect) democracy suffers immeasurably from an opposition deficit. And the consolidation of Turkey’s democracy and representation of all segments of its society in the political sphere is contingent upon the emergence of an effective, constructive, and progressive opposition. As of present, it seems, unfortunately, that one can only dream of it. 

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

You can follow him on twitter: @GalipDalay 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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