Howard Eissenstat
Jan 05 2018

The Turkish government's CHP crackdown

In 2017, Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), showed real signs of life for the first time in more than a decade. Its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, took real risks and was able to shift national discussions, at least momentarily. He did so first through the massive Justice March of June and July 2017 and then again through documents apparently demonstrating that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s family shifted millions of dollars to shadowy offshore companies in the Isle of Man and Malta.  

In neither of these cases, however, was Kılıçdaroğlu able to leverage the initial interest into a broader discussion; the danger is that he has managed to poke the bear without injuring it.  If Erdoğan were to initiate a crackdown on the CHP, it would be a mortal blow to what remains of Turkish democracy, undermine Erdoğan’s own legitimacy, and increase the risk of instability in a country that badly needs to avoid it.

Signs are growing that such a crackdown is indeed a possibility.

Many have rightly noted that the CHP is clearly at risk of being hanged on scaffolding that it helped build by when many of its members voted in favour of lifting parliamentary immunity in May 2016. It did so in part because much of its own base happy to see the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) punished as terrorists and, in part, Kılıçdaroğlu feared the opposition was already dying by ten thousand cuts. The costs of that choice are now evident, as most of the HDP leadership is jailed, CHP MP Enis Berberoglu faces life sentences, and prosecutors are apparently preparing to lift the immunity of Kılıçdaroğlu and other leading figures in the CHP.

Yet, jailing Kılıçdaroğlu would be a bad move for Erdogan.

Politically, it is very different from jailing the HDP leadership. The hard and ugly truth is that 80 percent of the Turkish electorate was perfectly fine with jailing the HDP as "terrorists".  But few outside of the hardest core of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) base believe that Kılıçdaroğlu is guilty of serious crimes. Moreover, the CHP serves a useful function for the AKP: it gives the party a clear domestic foil and it preserves the appearance of a competitive democracy.

In that sense the CHP leadership is far more dangerous to the AKP in prison than it is in parliament.

Today’s news of the removal of the mayor of Beşiktaş points to another, perhaps larger danger.  For much of the CHP base, local governance ensures that their districts are “liberated areas”; the effects of AKP dominance are felt lightly in day-to-day life. If the AKP starts a broader campaign against CHP municipalities or, as some reporting has suggested, does away with municipal elections altogether, the day-to-day impact of AKP control will be felt more acutely, exasperating Turkey’s brain drain and capital flight.  It would also remove the last hope for the representation of opposition parties. AKP’s effective control over Turkey’s political sphere would be complete.

The CHP cannot really compete with the AKP electorally at the national level, but it affords the AKP the appearance of being more democratic than it is.  This is important for the AKP electorate – who support democracy as a general principle – and it is important for the opposition who still maintain a hope – likely illusory – that Erdoğan can be unseated by democratic means.  Dispelling that illusion is unlikely to weaken Erdoğan's direct control of power, but it will make Turkey less stable: increasing the drain of capital and talent and potentially giving new support for militant groups or dissent within the military.  A crackdown on the CHP would be a tragedy at every level.

Precisely for these reasons I do not expect a broad campaign against the CHP.

Unfortunately, such a campaign cannot be ruled out.  

Decision making has become increasingly erratic and paranoid.  

The capacity for a tragic misstep is real.