Could Turkey’s main opposition, the CHP, have a chance at power?

Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the country’s oldest, having emerged from grass roots political movements involved in the initial struggle preceding the foundation of the Turkish Republic. It has been the country’s largest opposition party for over a decade. Banned in the 1980 military coup, the party has clawed its way back to its current second place position. In the two elections of 2015, the party’s support hovered around 25%, up from the 20% mark where it had been for the previous three elections. To put this in perspective, the ruling AKP won 49% of the vote in the last election, leaving the CHP trailing by over 20%. The CHP has not led a majority government since 1950 and its success peaked in the 1977 election where it won 41% of the vote. While the CHP’s fortunes are slowly improving, it is far from obtaining a decisive majority.

Without a major restructuring of existing political parties, the CHP represents the most likely vehicle for a change in government. CHP sceptics would argue that the former scenario is the more realistic, given the party’s slow progress. Since the attempted coup attempt, the AKP has been enjoying an increase in support, at a cost to the CHP: polls put the AKP support at almost 54%, with the CHP at around 23%. How could the CHP conceivably come to power in Turkey’s next general election?

Firstly, the AKP would have to lose a significant amount of its support, and fall to at least below 42% of the vote, enough to not be able to form a majority government. With the AKP currently riding high, how could this possibly happen? One possible scenario would be a serious downturn in Turkey’s economy. This is starting to look very possible for a number of reasons, including an ever-growing current account deficit, a weakening currency and rising inflation. The economic stability that Turkey has enjoyed under the AKP has helped the party retain its strong share of the vote. In the June 2015 election, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on a progressive, green, minority rights platform, along with the CHP’s increase, was able to dent the AKP vote significantly, capitalizing on several years of growing concern over increasing authoritarianism. The AKP’s majority is by no means guaranteed.

However, in June 2015, when the AKP was unable to form a majority government, the other Turkish parties were unable to form a coalition government. Despite the fact that the arguably more progressive opposition parties, the CHP and the HDP, were enjoying successes in the polls not seen in a decade, they did not collectively have enough of the vote to form a coalition. Moreover, forming a coalition with the HDP would risk the CHP losing some of their base, put off by some areas of the HDP’s base’ Kurdish nationalist tendencies.

For ideological reasons, neither the CHP nor the HDP were able to form a coalition with the second largest opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a far-right Turkish nationalist party. An MHP-CHP coalition drawing on common nationalist leanings, supported by the HDP to keep the AKP, was suggested. This was rejected by the MHP due to their opposition to the HDP. The HDP, with its progressive platform and Kurdish nationalist wing, and the MHP with its hard line Turkish nationalist ideology, could never conceivably cooperate.

The prospect of a CHP-HDP coalition would represent a viable alternative government, which could galvanise the vote and increase their support enough for them collectively to attain a majority government. But for this to happen, the HDP would have to convince the CHP base that it is distancing itself from Kurdish nationalism, which, as time goes by, seems increasingly less likely but not impossible. The CHP leader would have to play a careful balancing act between not upsetting the party’s more nationalist wing but at the same time still appeal to HDP voters enough to not make a coalition too politically costly for that party’s leadership.  CHP’s current leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has had some success in this regard but more work is needed and the CHP may be searching for a more dynamic leader to mirror the HDP’s impressive growth.

Part of the issue is that the CHP suffers from an image problem. It has been linked by its opponents to the old, Kemalist, establishment in Turkey, portrayed as oppressive and elitist. The AKP has used this rhetoric repeatedly over the years, cultivating this image. Moreover, AKP pundits since the coup have warned of a return of elitist, Kemalist power using post-coup purges. This image is off-putting for HDP and AKP voters alike. The CHP has to tread carefully so as not provoke a backlash in the post-coup consensus environment. More broadly, the CHP could hope to win more voters by distancing itself from the image of an oppressive, elitist group. However, it would have to be careful in the way it approaches this so as not to lose its base.

There is a section of the Turkish electorate that is fairly elastic and will change its support from one party to another around concerns such as the economy and security, rather than particularly ideology. If the CHP can bring itself to a position where it has a chance at power, combined with an AKP decline, we could then see a spiralling galvanizing effect, whereby a crucial 10% of the electorate move towards a ‘progressive’ coalition. Sea changes in Turkish politics often coincide with economic downturn. The AKP’s seemingly unbreakable grip on power may not be as certain as it appears.

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