World News

Turkish Opposition Hopes 4 Parties Are Mightier Than 1

Posted June 9, 2018 7:59 p.m. EDT
Updated June 9, 2018 8:05 p.m. EDT

ISPARTA, Turkey — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s abrupt decision to call elections more than a year ahead of schedule, hoping to catch the opposition off guard, may backfire.

Turkish opposition parties have come together in a rare alliance that could pose a serious challenge to Erdogan in his attempt to be re-elected June 24 to a presidency with vastly expanded powers.

Erdogan, 64, remains easily the most popular politician in Turkey. But the election, as with a referendum last year that created a more powerful presidential system, is turning into a vote for or against his continued rule.

The front-runner among the opposition candidates is Muharrem Ince, a physics teacher and five-time member of parliament for the Republican People’s Party.

“I see a huge desire for change,” Ince said in an interview this past week on his campaign bus between rallies in southern Turkey. “Erdogan will be very sorry.”

Reliable pollsters and analysts expect the race to be exceptionally close. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes, the election goes to a second round, something Erdogan hopes to avoid.

For now, pollsters say the chances are 50-50 for a second round in which the top two vote-getters face each other. The opposition is even, for the first time, organizing an operation to count the entire national vote independently, to counter any attempt at vote rigging.

If the opposition alliance holds and can force a second round, Ince could present a serious challenge to the president. The alliance candidates have pledged to unite behind whomever challenges Erdogan, Ince said.

Erdogan remains a skilled campaigner and a bruising opponent. He is running a campaign on nationalist themes, blaming terrorism and the West for Turkey’s economic woes — rising unemployment, inflation and a falling lira — and vaunting his social and building programs.

For many he is still a towering figure and the only convincing candidate for president.

But Ince is offering an uplifting antidote to Erdogan, parrying the president’s slurs with jokes and cheerfulness.

“The clouds of desperation are hanging over the country,” he said. “I promise serenity, happiness and I promise peace.”

In all, four opposition parties have banded together, supporting each other’s candidates. They have even offered a hand to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is in jail on various charges, from terrorism to insulting the president.

In a bold gesture, Ince visited Demirtas in jail, risking accusations from Erdogan of collusion with terrorists, but reaching out to a critical part of the electorate. The Kurdish vote, roughly 10 percent of the electorate, could swing the overall vote against Erdogan.

Independent opinion surveys show Erdogan at 45 percent support, with Ince at 20 percent. Yet when combined, the opposition alliance stands, plus the Kurds, neck and neck with Erdogan.

The president had 45.9 percent support, not enough to win the election outright in the first round, according to a survey last month by the Metropoll, an independent polling organization. The combined opposition vote amounted to 44.5 percent.

Erdogan’s party cites other polls that show him winning in the first round with between 51 and 55 percent.

Yet even government officials are acknowledging that Erdogan’s alliance, which his Justice and Development Party formed with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, may fall short of a majority in parliament. A presidential adviser and a pro-government columnist both have suggested that if Erdogan won the presidency but failed to win a majority in parliament, he might even call new elections again. Such a move would amount to a gamble that voters would yet deal him a better hand.

“Would he sacrifice himself in a scenario where he has the drum, but the stick is in the hands of the opposition?” columnist Ali Karahasanoğlu wrote last month in the pro-governemnt newspaper Yeni Akit.

Another opposition candidate, former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, who last year broke from the Nationalist Movement to form her own party, the Good Party, is adding to strains within Erdogan’s alliance.

She has proved to be a dynamic force in the opposition — as she was in the “no” campaign ahead of last year’s referendum — not only drawing away right-wing supporters from the ruling alliance but also making a strong pitch for women and youth voters with her newly formed party.

In her party song posted on YouTube, a mixture of rock and rap, young singers rail against those who “gave in to a tyrant” and warn “I’ve got flames burning in my heart.” In a glancing reference to Erdogan’s endless speeches, it calls on him: “Calm down, Champ.”

Aksener was meeting with opposition allies in the past week to seal a cross-party agreement to revise the Constitution and return the country to a parliamentary system should they win.

The deal would reverse Erdogan’s new powerful presidential system that by law will come into being with these elections.

That such disparate parties could come together on constitutional changes is groundbreaking in Turkey, as is their outreach to the Kurds. But Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism has itself proved to be a rallying point.

Since a failed coup in 2016, Erdogan has ruled the country under a state of emergency that has allowed him to dominate the media and all government institutions, including the Supreme Election Council.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized last year’s vote, saying a “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms created an unlevel playing field.”

Opposition parties accused Erdogan of falsifying the result by allowing thousands of unstamped ballots to be added to the count. Since then, he has changed the rules again.

Determined to prevent fraud, Aksener invited Burcu Akcaru, who used to run an election monitoring group, to join her as co-founder of the Good Party last year. Akcaru has overseen a large-scale mobilization across the opposition alliance to monitor the election and do its own tally. The party has designed its own software and a mobile phone app so thousands of opposition helpers across the country can record and photograph the result sheet of every ballot box.

In two independent centers in Ankara, the opposition will collate the results on their own servers, with a manual backup system in case of electricity or internet failures.

In the referendum last year, over 5,000 ballot boxes had no observers and 20,000 boxes were included in the count without a result sheet, Akcaru said in an interview. “We knew it,” she said, “but no political leaders did anything.”

This time, Ince has called on an army of volunteer lawyers to help challenge any fraud, and Aksener has vowed to camp outside the Supreme Election Board in case of irregularities. “You will have to remove me with a razor,” she said.