Clicky

Shipping News and Reviews

Turkey's left “squad” comes for Erdogan

Sera Kadigil was until recently one of the rising stars of Turkey's largest opposition party, the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP). Kadigil, a UK-trained lawyer in her late 30s, had built a national following because of her passionate parliamentary speeches, uncompromising style on nighttime news broadcasts, and relentless activism on women's issues. In 2018 she even won a coveted seat at the CHP party congress and received more votes than many party veterans.

So it was a surprise when Kadigil left the CHP at the end of June to join the Workers' Party of Turkey (TIP), to revive an old brand in Turkish politics and thus to repeat the success of Greece's Syriza and Spain's Podemos. Kadigil will be the party's fourth deputy alongside party chairman Erkan Bas; the award-winning investigative journalist Ahmet Sik; and the actor turned politician, Baris Atay. According to the rumor in Ankara, several other lawmakers are currently in talks to follow suit.

Sera Kadigil was until recently one of the rising stars of Turkey's largest opposition party, the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP). Kadigil, a UK-trained lawyer in her late 30s, had built a national following because of her passionate parliamentary speeches, uncompromising style on nighttime news broadcasts, and relentless activism on women's issues. In 2018 she even won a coveted seat at the CHP party congress and received more votes than many party veterans.

So it was a surprise when Kadigil left the CHP at the end of June to join the Workers' Party of Turkey (TIP), to revive an old brand in Turkish politics and thus to repeat the success of Greece's Syriza and Spain's Podemos. Kadigil will be the party's fourth deputy alongside party chairman Erkan Bas; the award-winning investigative journalist Ahmet Sik; and the actor turned politician, Baris Atay. According to the rumor in Ankara, several other lawmakers are currently in talks to follow suit.

As a member of the CHP, Kadigil has been popularly compared to the progressive arsonist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, popularly known as the AOC, in the United States. In their new party, Kadigil and her party colleagues draw comparisons with the group of young, progressive US officials known as "The Squad". However, whether they have a chance of influencing Turkish politics to the same extent is a completely different question.

Founded in 1961 by a group of union leaders and including left-wing intellectuals such as the world-famous novelist Yasar Kemal and the provocative satirist Aziz Nesin, the original TIP won a surprising victory in 1965 and received 15 elected members of the first left party to enter the Turkish parliament. The party proved to be short-lived and eventually dissolved into the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) in 1987 under pressure from police violence, factional struggles and the global decline of the left. Nevertheless, the success of the TIP has left a lasting legacy in the collective memory of the Turkish left.

Any newcomer is exciting news in Turkish politics, where the plot is constantly changing but the cast stays largely the same. Had politics been a profession, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his coalition partner Devlet Bahceli from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and opposition leaders Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the CHP and Meral Aksener from the Good Party would have already reached mandatory retirement age while the Co -Chairs of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar, would have been shy for just a few years. In contrast, the average age of the TIP squad is only 40 years.

Turkey is a gerontocracy on purpose, no accident. Three features of the Turkish electoral system present a practically insurmountable barrier for political upstart while entrenching established politicians. First, the law on political parties effectively allows party leaders to set the rules for their selection so that the leadership rarely changes unless the leaders vacate their seats. Erdogan and Bahceli have headed their parties for more than two decades, while Kilicdaroglu has been in office for over eleven years, and the trend is rising. His predecessor Deniz Baykal had a similar length of tenure, beginning in the early 1990s and only ending after he was embroiled in a sex tape scandal with his former chief of staff. Even then, though, it took a fierce political battle to replace him, and Baykal still holds his seat in parliament despite being semi-paralyzed from a debilitating stroke. In the MHP, Bahceli blocked the leadership elections for over two years in order to prevent a challenge from the dissidents around Aksener, who eventually got out and founded their own splinter party, the Good Party.

Second, Turkey has perhaps the most unfair electoral system in the world. The country chooses its elections using the "d'Hondt method", which makes it easier to form relatively stable governments, as it neither favors the top scorer nor gives the minority parties disproportionate bargaining power. At the same time, it enforces a national barrier of 10 percent, which is higher than anywhere else in the world. According to this system, a party needs more than 5 million votes to enter parliament. As a result, most voters prefer larger parties to smaller ones because they fear their votes may be lost, as was the case in 2002 when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) received only a third of the total vote but two thirds of the vote Seats in parliament because 46 percent of the votes were cast for parties that did not cross the threshold (two of which were only about 1 percent below).

After all, it is also difficult for smaller parties to vote. To be eligible to vote, a party must have offices in more than half of the country's 81 provinces or more than 20 MPs in parliament that it should have entered either on a different ticket or as an independent. To avoid these challenges, the parties have developed creative workarounds. Support for the HDP was concentrated in 12 provinces in the southeast with Kurdish majority, so that their candidates won their races as independents and later regrouped within parliament. In contrast, the Good Party literally borrowed 15 MPs from the CHP to vote in their first election. In 2018, Turkey officially legalized the formation of multi-party voting blocs, which opened up space for political cross-pollination – and for the rebirth of the TIP.

When the TIP was officially reborn in 2017 from a split in the TKP, it seemed to have the same fate as more than a dozen left-wing fringe parties, whose activities were mostly limited to university councils, wall posters and protest marches. The decisive factor was the entry of Erkan Bas into parliament on the HDP ticket. As a lifelong activist who rose to become chairman of the TKP, Bas was already a figure whose personal popularity surpassed that of his party. In parliament he managed to win over Atay and Sik, both political newbies who developed a reputation and a fan base as anti-establishment figures and who did not fit into the HDP, which had taken a tougher stance after the charismatic leader moderate wing of the party, Selahattin Demirtas, was imprisoned.

Kadigil was less of an outsider. At least that's how she appeared. She had made a name for herself as a defense attorney in a number of high-profile cases opened by the government against key figures in the opposition, secured a leadership position at the women's organization CHP and since then has steadily risen in the party. However, reading between the lines of Kadigil's resignation reveals that the party's glass ceiling was too thick to crack. It is no accident that Kadigil cited the sense of duty to the legacy of Behice Boran, the former TIP chair and first woman to lead a political party in Turkey, as a key factor in her decision. The CHP is a deeply divided party divided into fiefdoms between warring factions based on ethnic, regional or sectarian ties. This power game often excludes women. Despite recent measures such as gender quotas and the appointment of a general secretary, the CHP leadership remains male-dominated. Only 4 of the 15 vice-chairmen and around 10 percent of the vice-chairs are women. Even Erdogan's AKP has almost twice the proportion of women MPs than the supposedly progressive CHP.

Proponents of the party believe that the Quartet's personal popularity, combined with the country's economic downturn and authoritarian drift, can spark a grassroots left movement that reflects a global trend in the same direction and an impressive force in defeating Erdogan as well creates in determining what comes after him. However, there are some significant hurdles to overcome to achieve this potential. First, TIP needs to find a way to hit a nerve with Generation Z, who, according to polls, represent an overwhelming rejection of the Erdogan regime. Second, it must win the support of the working class, which is largely religiously conservative and dependent on the AKP's welfare machinery. Thirdly, it must convince the left-wing factions of the CHP and HDP that it is a viable alternative to their current parties. A key variable here is whether Erdogan will manage to break away from the nationalists and reinvigorate his relationship with the Kurds. Earlier this week, Erdogan visited Diyarbakir, the stronghold of the HDP, for the first time in three years, and signaled his openness to resume his failed peace mediation campaign with the Kurds. However, the mere talk of such a perspective has already divided the HDP. If it does come true, many party loyalties may not approve of such a realignment, and the TIP would be a likely haven for these disgruntled Kurds.

It will all be easier said than done. The political ground is a challenge in itself. The Turkish electorate is right-wing skewed, the left is deeply divided, and building the infrastructure the party needs to secure a place in the political arena will take time, money and energy. The Erdogan's vengeance is also an obstacle. If the party is too aggressive against the president, Erdogan will demonize its members as radicals and use his presidential powers to take action against them. If the party is more passive, it is unlikely to gain the pull it hopes for from the angry masses. In addition, the TIP will also have to be careful not to break the existing opposition alliance by antagonizing its conservative factions. Renegade AKP renegades like Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu or nationalist politicians like Aksener will be reluctant to see themselves as supporters of a party that sympathizes with communism.

These divisions can emerge when the opposition elects its candidate against Erdogan. According to polls, Aksener from the Good Party and two recently elected opposition mayors, Mansur Yavas from Ankara and Ekrem Imamoglu from Istanbul, are the only personalities who stand a chance of beating Erdogan. Two of the three, Aksener and Yavas, are dissident nationalists with a history of anti-communist activism, while Imamoglu is a pragmatist who shares the roots of Erdogan's hometown and belongs to the same power networks as his, which was a major reason for his surprise victory. Given Turkey's demographics, it is unlikely that the opposition left factions will be able to put forward a viable candidate. But they can get enough support to exercise a de facto veto right against the collective opposition.

If the opposition looks in disarray as a result, the food for Erdogan's winning argument would be: No matter how bad he is, the alternative is much worse. Many believe that the 2023 presidential election will be the opposition's last resort before they bridge the gap to outright authoritarianism. If it gets into a dispute over steering wheel control, Turkey could miss the exit to political normalcy.

Comments are closed.