Opposition in Turkey flounders in efforts to dislodge Erdogan

Protesters face an uphill struggle to erode Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s power base as opposition parties remain fragmented.

Kostas Tsironis/AP
A man gestures during Friday prayers at Gezi Park near Taksim square in Istanbul. Erdogan took a combative stance on his closely watched return to the country early Friday, telling supporters who thronged to greet him that the protests that have swept the country must come to an end.

For the first time since demonstrations against the government of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began a week ago, thousands of his supporters gathered at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport to express solidarity with their leader.

Returning from a four-day trip in North Africa, Mr. Erdogan showed little interest in compromising with demonstrators, whose protests rocked Istanbul and 66 other cities this week. While acknowledging the use of excessive force against demonstrators, Erdogan accused them of “vandalism and utter lawlessness” and refused to back down from his plan to develop Gezi Park, controversy over which sparked the unrest. In remarks during a televised conference later on Friday, he remained resolute about not giving in to protesters' demands, and encouraged them to voice their discontent at the ballot box.  

Erdogan’s unwillingness to bend – and the continued support of most of his fellow Justice and Development Party (AKP) members – serve as strong indicators that protesters have a long way to go before they can begin to erode Erdogan’s support base and forge any unified opposition front.

“Overall, I don’t think that within his own support base Prime Minister Erdogan lost a lot of support,” says Didem Collinsworth, Turkey analyst at the International Crisis Group. “I think he is still quite popular among the people that he used to be popular with, but it is more a question of whether he’s going to be the prime minister of the people who voted for him or whether he’s going to be the prime minister of the entire nation that also has very different views and lifestyles than the people who normally vote for him.”

Since Erdogan took office in 2002, he and his party have steadily amassed support and seats in parliament. In this most recent reelection in 2011, Erdogan secured 50 percent of the vote. Now, with a near veto-proof hold on government, AKP can pursue its agenda with little regard for building consensus with those outside the party.

In particular, liberal and secular Turks have taken issue with the conservative party’s Islamic-motivated initiatives, such as a law to restrict the sale and marketing of alcohol. In Istanbul, home to many bars and nightclubs, many residents fear that AKP has interpreted its majority status in the government as a mandate to do what it wants regardless of what the other half of the country thinks.

“It is the dictatorship of the majority,” says Hasan Konak, a business analyst. “Erdogan thinks that’s democracy – that the person who holds the majority can do whatever he wants.”

Underscoring the difficulty of countering Erdogan and the AKP’s policies, Mr. Konak says that while he does not support the ruling party, he also does not support any of the opposition parties.

No single dominant party

Outside of AKP, there is no one dominant political party. The group’s rivals come from a patchwork of parties, all with different interests. Opposition parties remain fragmented, and those who’ve taken to the streets lack common ground outside their disapproval of Erdogan. Without a concentrated platform, protesters will likely struggle to force Erdogan and his fellow AKP members out of office, and can at best pressure Erdogan to pursue more centrist policies.

“The protests are not triangulated into an opposition movement, an organized political party, nor are there any signs that support for AKP has dropped,” says Soner Cagaptay, a Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Still, the protests have shaken Turkish politics, as certain elements in society that were once silent are now expressing themselves.

“The part of Turkey that never voted for this party but remained quiet is now more vocal. This is now a new dynamic for Turkish politics,” says Mr. Cagaptay. “AKP’s political dominance will continue, it will probably remain the largest party, probably twice as largest as the nearest party, but now its opposition comes as much from the street as it does from the organized opposition in the parliament.”

Some liberal supporters break away

How this is likely to affect Turkish politics remains unclear. Unless protests force an early election, the country will go to the polls again in 2014 for local and presidential elections and in 2015 for parliamentary elections.

Though AKP’s core supporters appear unlikely to leave the party over recent developments, the party has already seen some liberal supporters leave in recent years as it’s become more outwardly conservative.

Sabit Yururdurmaz, an editor at Forbes Turkey, says he originally supported Erdogan. In the first years that the prime minister was in office, Mr. Yururdurmaz says he was pleased that Erdogan pushed for Turkey’s European Union membership and worked to make peace with Kurdish militants, among other initiatives. Now, however, he’s drifted from Erdogan because of his increasingly Islamic agenda and unwillingness to stop the Gezi Park development project.

“He wants us to be an Islamic country slowly, slowly,” says Yururdurmaz. “I think he will lose many votes and supporters in the next election.”

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