Although the 2019 presidential election is two years away, Turkey’s opposition parties have already started to feel the pressure. As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) last week, the masterminds of the ‘no’ campaign who were hoping to forge opponents of constitutional reform into a united front were alarmed.
Deniz Baykal, a former chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a current deputy for Antalya, stressed the importance of picking the right candidate for 2019 and warned, “We must not waste time with discussions about the referendum’s legitimacy and instead choose our candidate.”
Noting that CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu should run for president in 2019, Mr. Baykal urged the main opposition leader to step down unless he was prepared to join the race. He added that former President Abdullah Gül, a founder of the AK Party, could be the opposition front’s joint candidate, which sparked controversy within the CHP and triggered a debate about Mr. Gül’s political future among AK Party supporters.
As Fikri Sağlar, a CHP deputy for Mersin, charged Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu with establishing one-man rule in the main opposition party, the AK Party base compelled Mr. Gül to issue a statement to address the claim.
Some observers familiar with the CHP’s internal dynamics believe that Mr. Baykal’s statement was an effort to land on the ticket himself. To be clear, it is perfectly normal for a national politician to want to run for president. However, the former CHP chairman’s real concern relates to the sheer difficulty of the task in hand: to defeat President Erdoğan in 2019.
Mr. Baykal appears to believe that opposition voters could be rallied around the theme of ‘democracy’ with the memories of the referendum still fresh in order to prevent Erdoğan from winning over ‘no’ voters with good policy choices. Meanwhile, Mr. Baykal’s rush to find someone to run against the incumbent in 2019 reminds many people of the opposition’s failed strategy last time around.
Compared to 2014, the opposition will have a more difficult time finding a suitable candidate for their joint campaign. First of all, it is important to recall that last time’s joint bid was a failure: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu received 38 percent of the vote as President Erdoğan declared victory in the first round.
To make matters worse, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli, who sided with the opposition in 2014, has since allied himself with Mr. Erdoğan. Needless to say, it will be a huge challenge to unite CHP voters, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) base and the MHP’s intraparty opposition. Ahead of the 2019 election, Mr. Bahçeli could easily accuse his opponents within the MHP of collaborating with the PKK.
At the same time, the opposition campaign would have to pick a popular candidate and develop a wide-reaching platform. Either way, the important thing is to identify a candidate who can oppose Mr. Erdoğan and never stop campaigning. By contrast, the problem is that it’s practically impossible to compare potential candidates. Likewise, Mr. Baykal’s plan to form a coalition of national politicians to endorse and assist the opposition’s joint candidate is difficult to implement.
The alternative plan, which involves individual parties nominating their own candidates in the first round, to support Erdoğan’s opponents in the run-off, would have a limited impact as well. Moving forward, it is plausible that many people who voted against constitutional reform from the MHP, CHP and HDP could end up supporting the incumbent in 2019.
And the fact that a former chairman of the CHP would even consider nominating Mr. Gül is a sign of weakness. In the past, the main opposition party has been unable to drive a wedge between AK Party voters.
Nor will simple references to democracy impress voters because this imagined front won’t be able to compete with Erdoğan’s post-coup coalition on the basis of national values. The opposition appears destined to repeat the mistakes of the 2014 presidential election. They might not be able to recover at all.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on May 8, 2017.