Turkey’s Opposition Should Rediscover its Strengths

Officially, Turkish voters went to the polls on Sunday to elect municipal governments. But the ballot was also an informal referendum on the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan,the prime minister. His Justice and Development party, or AKP, took close to 45 per cent of the vote; the three main opposition parties took 51 per cent between them.

The AKP’s showing was a clear improvement on the 39 per cent it received in the last municipal elections. It won in Turkey’s two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara – though in the capital only by a whisker.

Nevertheless, it was not an overwhelming endorsement – not compared with the 50 per cent the party received in the last parliamentary elections, or the 57 per cent who voted Yes in a 2010 referendum on constitutional changes championed by Mr Erdogan.

For Turkey’s sake, the destructive and polarising style of politics we have witnessed in the past few months needs to end. It is highly damaging at a time when the country faces severe economic challenges and needs domestic and foreign investment.

The AKP has the advantage of facing an opposition that is split between three parties. The opposition’s campaign tactics – which made heavy use of tape recordings, most of them illegal, of conversations involving government figures – backfired, presenting the prime minister as the victim of shadowy practices that no one found acceptable. This helped Mr Erdogan attract a plurality of votes despite rolling back democratic freedoms and facing allegations of corruption.

For Turkey’s sake, the destructive and polarising style of politics we have witnessed in the past few months needs to end. It is highly damaging at a time when the country faces severe economic challenges and needs domestic and foreign investment.

Three things need to happen if Turkey is to emerge once again as a democratic country and an economically successful one.

First, the AKP must become a truly democratic conservative party with a leadership that grasps the link between good governance and sustainable economic success. Turkish conservatives must respect the separation of religious faith from politics and market transactions. To claim, as some senior politicians did, that voters have a religious duty to back the AKP is an affront to both religion and democracy.

The Republican People’s party, or CHP, must become a European centre-left social democrat party that stands for a liberal society and the rule of law. There can be no room for ethnic chauvinism in a sister party of the European centre-left. The CHP can be proud that it founded the republic, gave Turkish women the vote before many European countries did, upheld the principles of the secular state, signed an association agreement with Europe in 1963 and gave workers their social rights. But it must look to the future and explain how, with good governance, a more equitable and stable form of growth can be achieved.

The Peace and Democracy party, which draws support mainly from secular Kurds, should aim for a future in which Turkey’s Kurds will be prosperous and at peace in a democratic country. Turkey’s various ethnic groups are deeply intertwined and separation would bring terrible losses for all. Of course the country’s Kurds must enjoy full cultural rights, and all citizens should exercise increased control over their municipal affairs. On these issues the CHP should offer its support.

On the right, the Nationalist Action party represents a significant constituency that views cultural and municipal decentralisation with suspicion. But its leadership has wisely stood up for the rule of law and warned against violence.

Turkey’s centre-left opposition must eschew the focus on tapes, concentrate on the economy and rediscover the ability to speak for a large majority – and the strength – that it displayed in the 1970s. This alone could challenge Mr Erdogan’s monopoly on power and also help moderates within the AKP. It could also give confidence to Turkey’s Kurds and other groups such as the Alevis, as well as practising Sunnis.

Whoever wins elections, the republic they founded together under Mustafa Kemal’s leadership belongs to all of them – and all have a right to enjoy their culture and spirituality as part of the large European family.