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Erdogan’s Last Hope: Playing the Orban Game

Source: Mikhail Klimentyev

It is officially the election season in Turkey. Presidential and parliamentary elections were set to take place in mid-June, but Erdogan has recently expressed his intention to call for early elections to take place on May 14th. According to the Constitution, Erdogan cannot run for a third term unless the Parliament calls for an early election but the opposition has announced that they will not support an early election motion to take place after April, denying Erdogan’s ruling party AKP enough votes within the Parliament. Ideally, Erdogan has to negotiate with the opposition parties to convince them to support an early election motion within the Parliament so that he can rerun. However, nothing “ideal” has happened in Turkish politics for a long long time.

As Turks are dealing with a historic level of inflation (a group of independent academics measured it as %137.55 in December), polls are alarming for Erdogan and his ruling party, the AKP. Six opposition parties, led by the main opposition social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), formed an alliance to unite behind a candidate to oust Erdogan and obtain a majority in the Parliament to change the Constitution. In 2017, the Turkish constitution was changed following a disputed referendum to change the country’s regime from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Now, returning back to the parliamentary system is the one thing that bonded opposition parties with different ideologies together. Seeing that his support is shrinking, Erdogan is now playing a different game- one that we have seen in Hungary.

Before the latest Hungarian elections, the political atmosphere in Hungary was similar to what we are seeing in Turkey right now. Six opposition parties were united as the “United Opposition” with a common objective to achieve: ousting Prime Minister Victor Orban. Orban was running for his fourth consecutive term. His populist agenda targeted the marginalized to garner support from conservatives that are happy with the economic situation in the country. Demonizing “the other” is a common practice seen in illiberal democracies, and Orban is the one that comes to mind when we talk about illiberalism. His government held a referendum at the same time as the parliamentary elections, asking voters four different questions concerning LGBTI+ rights in the country. However, several NGOs worked to prevent the referendum from being valid by encouraging voters to spoil their votes. Their campaign paid off, and the referendum was declared invalid with fewer than 50% of eligible voters casting valid ballots. What’s more, the mayor of the country’s largest city, Budapest, was among those who were considered to be the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. Turkey now has a surprisingly similar situation.

In Turkey, the alliance of six major opposition parties known as “The Table of Six” started to hold regular meetings to create joint policy proposals to be implemented when their coalition replaces the AKP. They agreed on crucial topics concerning the economy, the rule of law, human rights, and the Constitution while also ensuring the public that they will work together to promote election security. At first, the opposition gained momentum which now has halted as they still have not announced their presidential candidate to challenge Erdogan. Also, the Table’s hesitancy to negotiate with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Parliament’s third largest party, pushed the HDP to form a new left-wing alliance with other minor parties. The HDP is a pro-Kurdish party that helped the opposition to win Istanbul and Ankara in the latest local elections after over 20 years of AKP rule in these cities. They now face a trial that could outlaw the party and ban most of its politicians from politics. After the latest meeting of the Table of Six, the leaders refrained from condemning the court decision freezing the HDP’s bank accounts, leading the HDP to announce they will now enter the presidential elections with their own candidate- a blow to the Table of Six's hopes to unite the opposition behind one candidate.

Although the opposition still struggles to energize its voters, Erdogan seems more nervous than ever. Most polls show Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas ahead of Erdogan. The latest court decision on Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu proves how anxious Erdogan is about a possible Imamoglu candidacy for president. The Court ruled that Imamoglu insulted public officials in a speech he made after his election victory in 2019 and sentenced him to two years and seven months in prison along with the political ban, both of which must be confirmed by an appeals court.

Erdogan’s “Orban game” is not limited to interfering with court decisions. In fact, the rule of law has always been a serious concern during Erdogan’s rule as his Putin-like regime does not refrain from jailing political rivals. However, his latest constitutional amendment proposal seems to be inspired by Europe’s number two autocrat after himself: Victor Orban. After the CHP leader Kilicdaroglu voiced his support for promoting religious freedom concerning women wearing headscarves, Erdogan saw an opportunity there. Kilicdaroglu’s statement drew criticism from secular voters who face different threats to their lifestyles on a daily basis, considering the fact that the so-called “headscarf controversy” is no longer a problem in Turkish society. Erdogan’s AKP is now preparing a constitutional amendment to secure women’s right to wear a headscarf, but the amendment is not limited to that. It also includes an article defining a family as a union between a man and a woman, denying that there can be LGBTI+s in a strong family. It also calls queers “perverts.” This amendment is problematic on so many grounds as it directly contradicts the Turkish Constitution, the concept of the secular state, and the equality of citizens. Erdogan wants to consolidate his Islamic-nationalist base by playing identity politics and further demonizing the marginalized by exploiting religious values. If the AKP cannot find enough support in the Parliament -it most likely will not- Erdogan is expected to take this proposal to a referendum at the same time as the parliamentary and presidential elections, just like Orban did. The CHP, the HDP, and the nationalist IYI Party have already announced that they will not negotiate another constitutional amendment with the AKP- denying Erdogan enough votes to hold a referendum. He believes further polarizing the voters is the only way to make them forget the government’s mishandling of the economy.

What will Erdogan’s game plan look like is the question not only Turkish voters but many people from all around the world have in mind. He seems to enjoy reusing the “headscarf controversy” as a religious topic to exploit while also demonizing queers, and it is now up to the opposition parties how far Erdogan could go polarizing the society. The world’s eyes are on the upcoming Turkish elections, hoping the good will win this time.

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