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."
Umit Bektas / Reuters

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 was: 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.

Perhaps even more striking, starting in June of this year, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), led a remarkable 280-mile “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul. For weeks, Kilicdaroglu was able to wrest the media’s attention away from Erdogan. The AKP raged against the march, saying that its participants were “supporting terrorists,” but Erdogan refrained from an actual crackdown, recognizing that doing so would have crossed the line and enraged the country. The march ended in Istanbul with a massive rally that drew hundreds of thousands of citizens. It was a remarkable political moment, as much a festival of defiance as it was a political meeting. For the first time in memory, government critics seemed hopeful.

That hope may be misplaced, but it is not an empty one. Kilicdaroglu’s march demonstrated his realization that to be effective, the opposition needed to be more creative and dynamic than it had been in the past. Moreover, the march, like the “no” campaign before the April referendum, garnered the support of both the HDP and "rebel” elements of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) (the latter of which has been effectively divided since the government engineered an intervention to retain the compliant Devlet Bahceli as head of the party). At least for the time being, the opposition, on both the left and the right, seems to understand that it is only through cooperation that it can hope to challenge Erdogan’s hold on power.

A scenario in which the opposition succeeds in this is conceivable, but it would be the longest of long shots. This month, Meral Aksener, the most prominent of the MHP rebels, announced that the group would form a new party in November. This is important not only because it would threaten Bahceli’s place in the parliament, where he has positioned the MHP as less an opposition party and more a junior partner to the AKP, but also because a new right-of-center party might conceivably siphon off votes from the AKP. Turkey is, at its core, a center-right country; a key element of the AKP’s success has been that it has had few rivals to compete with among this segment of voters.

In the 2019 elections, a real challenge from the center-right would force the AKP to compete for that slice of the electorate in the parliament, potentially opening space for a “grand coalition” among the opposition parties. A dynamic candidate who can appeal to the center-right is the opposition’s only real hope of challenging Erdogan for the presidency. Leftists and progressives may not be excited about such a candidate, but fear of Erdogan could well push them to support a right-leaning candidate. Despite 15 years in power and effective control over most of the Turkish media, the AKP has never been able to extend its electoral base beyond 50 percent. Even if 40 percent of the country is utterly loyal to Erdogan, nearly half of the country remains utterly opposed to him. This reality is unlikely to change.

Despite these vulnerabilities, the AKP retains advantages, even in a fairly contested election. Erdogan is a remarkably gifted politician, but it is clear that some AKP voters have grown wary of him. In the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup, Erdogan’s popularity soared and yet, according to a survey by Research Istanbul, 10 percent of AKP voters supported Kilicdaroglu’s Justice March.  But this abstract desire for an alternative doesn’t necessarily turn into a concrete vote for a competitor. In the 2014 presidential election, the CHP and MHP unified behind a political unknown, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, whose Islamic credentials were meant to appeal to devout voters; he grossly underperformed. The MHP, the HDP, and the new party envisioned by the MHP would all potentially be at risk of falling below the ten percent electoral threshold, which would result in a growth of AKP seats in the parliament. The AKP parliamentary majorities have always been girded by Turkey’s electoral system, which punishes smaller parties.  In the 2002 election, the AKP won only 34.3 percent of the vote but nonetheless garnered 363 seats in the 550-seat parliament. Moreover, even if the AKP lost a majority of seats, it would not necessarily be dislodged from power. In 2015, the AKP took a drubbing in parliamentary elections, receiving only 41 percent of the vote. Rather than create a coalition, however, it cobbled together an interim government that was basically a continuation of AKP rule. When no coalition was created after three months, Erdogan simply called new elections, which the AKP was able to win handily.

The problem with all of these scenarios is that they are based on the assumption of free and fair elections. That no longer seems likely in Turkey. If one lesson of the April referendum is that Erdogan’s base has softened, another is that the opposition cannot rely on a level playing field or even a valid vote count. The press is no longer free. Basic state institutions, including the judiciary, are now largely extensions of the AKP. Of the three opposition parties in the parliament, one has been co-opted by the government and the leaders of another languish in jail. Turkey is not in any meaningful sense a democracy.

Erdogan, it seems clear, sees value in having the CHP in the parliament: the main opposition serves as a foil against his authoritarian rhetoric and as a demonstration of his democratic bona fides. Erdogan’s tolerance of the Justice March underscores his understanding of the dangers in directly cracking down on the main opposition. It does not mean, however, that he will allow the opposition to unseat him.

The purge, which has already shaken the fabric of Turkish society, is not slowing down; it is intensifying. For some time, thousands of academics were purged nationwide while Turkey’s most elite university remained largely untouched. But the day after the Justice March ended, the faculty of Bosphorus University were included in a new set of arrests targeting academic staff. Human rights defenders, including those working for major international organizations such as Amnesty International, have been arrested. Whatever concerns Erdogan might have had about Western condemnation of the purge are now gone.

Turkey’s opposition has finally understood that it must find common cause in order to effectively challenge President Erdogan’s hold on power. The risk is that they may have come to this realization far too late.

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