The conservative turn of Turkey’s opposition

Is the Turkish opposition boycotting identity politics or engaging in it?

The secular Republican People's Party nominated Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu for the upcoming presidential elections [AFP]

Turkey is fixated on the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for August. This election is of historical significance and will have considerable impact on the future course of Turkey’s politics. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) sees this election not just as an election of a president, but also as an election which will select a new type of political system.

To clarify, if the government candidate wins the election, the AKP will do its utmost to change the nature of Turkey’s parliamentary-centric political system to make it more presidential. However, there are constitutional impediments that need to be overcome to reach this goal. The opposition, composed of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Turkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), objects to such a move. Thus both sides feel that there is much at stake.

These shared feelings about the importance and histroical significance of the election have been reflected in the main parties’ approach to the candidate nomination process. Both sides engaged in the cumbersome process of consulting with a wide range of political and societal actors to ensure they name the right candidates. As a result, the AKP nominated its chairman and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan as its candidate for presidential elections. In contrast, the opposition announced former Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as their joint candidate. Erdogan was long expected to run on the governing party’s ticket for presidential race, yet the announcement of Ihsanoglu as the opposition’s joint candidate surprised even close observers of Turkish politics.

The selection of Ihsanoglu, a conservative figure, by the secular opposition, is based on his potential appeal to the conservative segment. The logic of the opposition is as follows: The majority of Turkish society is conservative and unless the presidential candidate is able to receive votes from the conservative segment, he stands little chance of winning the election. Therefore, it is a results-oriented calculation rather than a principle-driven policy that has led to the nomination of Ihansoglu.

A conservative turn

If the electoral performance was the only criteria, one might plausibly argue that the nomination of Ihsanoglu was a smart move on the part of the opposition. Yet judging by the compatibility of a candidate’s profile with his party’s self-proclaimed political ideals, his nomination is clearly a setback for the CHP’s political platform. 

Two conservative figures will be the primary contenders for the office. No matter who wins, one thing is certain: that the next president of Turkey will be of a conservative political disposition. Yet for Turkey’s opposition, and particularly the secular and purportedly social-democratic CHP (a member of the Socialist International) opting for a conservative figure as its candidate is not an exception or aberration. Rather, it is a continuation of the party’s reorientation to the right, a feature that has become more salient in recent years.

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In this respect, the nomination of Ihsanoglu is a demonstration of the party’s conservative turn that has been long under way, a process that reflects a dramatic transformation in Turkey’s political and social scene.  

Previously secularism was Turkey’s political consensus, but not its social consensus. With the announcement of this joint candidate, coupled with the opposition’s conservative turn in recent years, it seems that conservatism has replaced secularism as the political, as well as the social consensus. The AKP, as the self-proclaimed conservative democrat party, emphasises conservative and Islamic values, and these themes are the primary foundations of its identity and narrative. Thus, it was both the product and also the creator of the rising tide of conservatism in Turkey.

But the CHP’s new policies, its transformed discourse and the changing profile of its candidates, has helped this trend to reach a wider segment of society, gain further legitimacy, and become established as Turkey’s new norm.

In recent years, the CHP had reduced its platform and political ideology to mere anti-AKP rhetoric. It thus failed to put forward an alternative vision of more democratic, liberal politics. The more the CHP focused on what the AKP was doing wrong, the more it weakened its position to potentially create an alternative political narrative and framework. Such an approach inevitably has to revolve around a conservative agenda, which in return has culminated in the further entrenchment of conservatism in the political sphere.

The political language of the opposition in recent years has also changed dramatically, but has not become better or more enlightened. In fact, it has adopted language emphasising more conservative values, which it has perceived to be behind AKP’s political fortunes. For instance, during the local elections campaign in Istanbul’s Uskudar district, the CHP emphasised that their candidate was a religious figure (a muftu) and therefore possessed the necessary moral authority for the role. Such religiously charged language was repeatedly used in the CHP campaign.

The nomination of Ihsanoglu was the latest in a string of conservative right-wing figures the CHP has supported since 2007 in anticipation of enhancing its election performance, a strategy that has been pursued at the expense of political principles, integrity, and vision. The last local elections saw a dramatic increase in candidates with overtly conservative, right-wing credentials. Ankara, Bursa, and  Hatay are just a few of the provinces where CHP entered the elections with overtly conservative and nationalist candidates.  

Identity politics

To counter these charges of a conservative turn, many have asserted that the choice of Ihsanoglu would weaken the role of identity in Turkish politics, a feature that has been regarded by many, especially secular liberals, as a curse for the non-conservative parties, and a hindrance to the development of their political narrative and platform on more practical, secular themes.

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This line further argues that it is the conservative parties, especially the ruling AKP, that fan and promote identity politics which pits conservatives and Islamists against secularists, and Turks against Kurds. Therefore, the opposition’s choice of a conservative figure as its presidential candidate has been portrayed as the laudable rejection of identity politics.  

Yet this strategy may have the opposite of the intended effect, at least in the short run. The choice of conservative candidates by a purported social-democrat party strengthens the politics of identity. It is the perceived gain to be reaped from his conservative identity rather than his public popularity that is the primary and arguably the most important factor in Ihsanoglu’s nomination for the candidacy.

In this regard, it is unfortunate that the opposition could not field a figure that might genuinely represent a different political paradigm and project, with an alternative vision to the current dominant one. At the present, it seems like there is no viable electoral alternative.

The opposition’s conservative turn in recent years only confirms that Turkey’s previous political centre, constructed around militant secularism, is in the process of being deconstructed. In its place, the construction of a new political centre, informed and underpinned by conservative values, is well under way.

Galip Dalay works as a researcher in the political-research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey, and is the book-review editor of the quarterly magazine Insight Turkey. He also contributes to the German Marshall Fund’s policy-brief series on Turkey and  the Al Jazeera Center for Studies.  

Follow him on Twitter: @GalipDalay