Umit Bektas / Reuters A young man walks with a Turkish national flag on a huge banner during a rally to mark the end of the "Justice March", Istanbul, Turkey, July 9, 2017. The word in red means "justice."

The Hard Truth About Turkey's Opposition

Why It Will Have Trouble Challenging Erdogan

It has been over a year since the coup attempt in Turkey, yet the country is still in turmoil. The government has intensified its purge against anyone it suspects is associated with the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleges orchestrated the effort to oust him, even though Gulen has been living in the United States since 1999. In the process, Erdogan has also taken action against a wide range of other individuals with no clear ties to the Gulen Movement. The Ministry of Justice claims it has initiated “procedures” against 169,000 citizens and has arrested more than 50,000 of them. New arrests are announced almost daily. Another 150,000 have been suspended from their jobs presumably for cooperating with the Gulenists, although no evidence has been offered to confirm this. The April constitutional referendum, which will abolish the prime ministership in 2019, effectively eliminated whatever checks and balances remained in the Turkish government. It provided Erdogan not only with the powerful presidential system that he had long coveted but with unparalleled control over the judiciary and security services. Meanwhile, since it reignited in July 2015, Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK)—a Kurdish movement that has a broad following in Turkey but has been designated by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union as a terrorist organization—has grown more violent. Casualties on both sides of the conflict continue to rise every week—nearly 3,000 have died since July 2015—and some 500,000 civilians have been forcibly displaced.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that Turkey’s opposition has shown new signs of strength in recent months and has fanned hopes that it could challenge the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. The hard truth, however, is that this new vigor has likely come too little, too late.

In the lead-up to the April constitutional referendum, the “no” campaign, which opposed the new presidential system, was surprisingly effective, given how remarkably uneven the playing field : the “yes” campaign benefited from open government support and blanket coverage by a press essentially beholden to the government. Some opposition figures, such as the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are behind bars, and many of their followers were among those displaced by the fighting between the government and the PKK; as a result, many of these would-be “no” voters were denied the opportunity to cast their ballots in the referendum. Moreover, officials in AKP-controlled municipalities routinely had “no” campaign posters torn down and repeatedly broke up or banned “no” rallies. In the end, and despite significant evidence of voting irregularities, the “yes” campaign managed to squeak by with only 51.4 percent of the vote. Erdogan may have consolidated his power, but not without betraying new electoral weaknesses.

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