Why Faltering Democracies Need Strong Opposition Parties: Lessons from Turkey

On June 24, 2018, millions of Turkish citizens went to the ballot box in what was deemed a “historic” election. The results effectively changed the regime in Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one, which grants the president unprecedented sweeping powers.

Having won 52% of the votes, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not only got reelected as president, but also became one of the strongest rulers in modern Turkish history, second only to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s founder. While supporters of Erdoğan and his conservative, pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) have since been rejoicing over the results, it has been a rocky road for the supporters of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Established by Atatürk in 1923, the CHP ruled the country single-handedly for almost thirty years, leading a top-down modernization and secularization process in the country. But in recent decades, the party has been confined to the opposition and excluded from most leadership roles. Yet, despite its long tenure as an opposition party, the confusion the CHP displayed on election night, and in the weeks following the elections, suggests that it has not yet learned how to tackle its not-so-new position.

On election night, when the state news agency announced Erdoğan’s projected victory suspiciously early, CHP voters warned each other not to believe the news because the agency was biased toward the ruling AKP. When, around 10:30pm, Erdoğan declared his victory based on unofficial results, a CHP spokesperson stated that party representatives at the ballot boxes are reporting otherwise, and that there would definitely be a second round for presidential elections.

Throughout the night, Twitter was flooded by opposition voters, including some CHP officials, who declared the results fake and urged party representatives at the ballot boxes to keep guarding the votes against AKP tampering.

Meanwhile, CHP’s presidential candidate Muharrem İnce tweeted that he would make a public statement later that night, after the Higher Election Council announced the temporary results. As the statement was delayed, CHP voters anxiously refreshed their social media feeds. Around 12.30 AM, a television show host tweeted that İnce sent him a WhatsApp message, saying “the guy won!”

After this short concession message, İnce tweeted one more time, promising a press statement the next day at noon. Without a clear statement from İnce, conspiracy theories abounded on social media: “İnce must have won, but is being threatened, or perhaps even held hostage, by Erdoğan or by the military!” Several former CHP MPs tweeted that they do not accept the election results, further fueling these rumors. By the time İnce finally spoke at noon the next day, his disappointed but conciliatory words to his supporters did little to mitigate their bitter disillusionment.

In the three months since, neither İnce nor CHP officials have taken substantial steps to shed light on the details of the election night. In response to journalists’ questions, İnce initially claimed that he “simply wanted to wait for the official results before making any public statement.”

When this explanation did not help put an end to questions and criticisms from his supporters, he added that he had indeed intended to make a public statement around midnight on elections night, but after his WhatsApp message was made public—without his consent—he decided to wait until next day when official results would have been announced.

He then went on to suggest that the rumors on social media were simply nonsense, and that those who claimed that he was kidnapped or threatened simply suffer from schizophrenia. To top it all off, the current chair of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu refused to take responsibility for the loss, and ignored calls for his resignation. Since early July, the rivalry between Kılıçdaroğlu and İnce—who had run for the party chairmanship twice—has resurfaced, and the party has been shaken by disputes between those who want to hold an extraordinary convention to vote Kılıçdaroğlu out and those who want him to stay.

Although the CHP has lost many elections throughout its history, unpreparedness in the face of election results have become its trademark. When it first lost leadership in 1950, after 27 years of domination, CHP supporters—believing their party was the only fit ruler for Turkey—refused to believe that the results truly reflected public will. The explanations the shocked CHP elites offered then would sound familiar to today’s disheartened CHP supporters: “The public has been manipulated!”; “The voters are irrational!”; “The government will soon return to its rightful owner—us!”

Similarly, in 1999, when the CHP failed to pass the 10% electoral threshold and was not able to send any representatives to the parliament for the first time in its history, chaos reigned: some blamed the then-leader of CHP, Deniz Baykal, for the failure while others suggested that the media, which minimized CHP coverage during the election campaign, was to blame.

According to Baykal, the public would soon realize the mistake they made by abandoning the CHP, an “indispensable party” for Turkish democracy; should the elections be repeated the next day the CHP would immediately take its place back in the parliament. In the same vein, in 2007, when the AKP was reelected in general elections, CHP leadership labeled the election as “unfair”, drawing attention to the disproportionate use of state resources by the AKP during the election campaign.

The latest election campaign in Turkey was far from free and fair. Yet, arriving at election night without a clear protocol to follow, and not taking responsibility for electoral defeat, further undermine public belief in democracy, leaving opposition voters in a state of disbelief and speculation.

Some of Turkey’s distant neighbors—Algeria, India, and Israel, among others—have seen similar dynamics, as parties that took an active role in establishing their respective nation-states struggle to come to terms with their ousting from power. But without a clear strategy on how to address defeat, including a timely concession speech and a well-defined path toward recovery, such parties leave their supporters assuming the worst about their competitors and questioning the workings of their own democracy (or, whatever is left of it, in the Turkish case). If CHP leadership continues to allow such political culture to flourish, it will keep demoralizing its own supporters and make a future return to power harder than ever.