Erdoğan’s AKP stirring up dissent within Turkey’s opposition parties

Trouble among Turkey’s opposition parties continues with the centre-right Good Party (İYİP) deputy Ümit Özdağ accusing a senior official in his party of being a follower of U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Özdağ said he had warned İYİP leader Meral Akşener that Buğra Kavuncu, İYİP’s Istanbul chairman could be a member of FETÖ, or the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation, as Turkey refers to Gülen’s followers who it holds responsible for organising the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Akşener then vetted Kavuncu before he joined the party, according to Özdağ.

Akşener later said the whole ordeal was a ploy by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against her own party. Kavuncu pressed charges against Özdağ and received support from 39 district chairs of his party. All 81 provincial chairs of İYİP are currently working to expel Özdağ from the party.

In the left-wing opposition front, the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) Ayhan Bilgen, who was recently arrested and lost his mayoral seat in the eastern Kars province to a government appointed proxy, publicly criticised his party for imposing top-down decisions during candidate selections. Bilgen said the HDP was going through a process of reverse mainstreaming.

In a message sent from prison via his lawyers, Bilgen said no opposition party dared to openly enter an alliance with the HDP and that the party had mistaken its growth during Turkey’s peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) between 2013 and 2015 to be a permanent expansion. According to the veteran politician, the party had not been able to fulfil its own function.

So, what does all this mean? Is the AKP engaged in an operation to disrupt opposition parties? Or are the HDP and İYİP truly boiling below the surface?

AKP officials have enthusiastically joined the conversation, with its parliamentary group deputy chair Bülent Turan speaking up first. “I don’t know who is a member of FETÖ within the İYİP, but we said a year ago that İYİP was established as an operation and would scatter after the elections,” Turan said.

Akşener responded by saying the İYİP would “of course view future events in a different light, given what Turan wrote”.

Meanwhile, the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had another crisis over Muharrem İnce, a former presidential candidate, who said he didn’t receive adequate support from his party and that people close to him were barred from politics. İnce has been touring the country, visiting provinces with no backing from the CHP. He has stated that he would not establish a breakaway party, but still occasionally faces the question whether he would.

Many among the opposition say the disagreement among them worked in favour of the AKP and its junior coalition partner, far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose former members established İYİP in 2017 as a response to its alliance with the ruling party.

Others maintain that the government has been actively encouraging such dissonance. To this end, without giving any names, CHP’s İnce said: “On one hand, AKP dissenters are told to ‘not divide the ummah (Arabic for ‘community’)’ and leaving the CHP is deemed ‘the most natural right’. On the other, some call people leaving the AKP ‘heroes of democracy’ and those leaving the CHP ‘servants of the palace’. There is no difference.”

Özdağ has since become isolated in his party since his comments.

Pro-government pundit Hilal Kaplan wrote about Kavuncu’s family ties with Gülen. According to Kaplan, Kavuncu’s two uncles were key names for Gülen’s Central Asian organisation and the organisation in Kazakhstan. A third uncle was Brigadier General Salim Cüneyt Kavuncu, who wrote a report that led to the 2011 Uludere bombing in which 34 civilian Kurds, most of them children, were killed, Kaplan wrote.

“Should people be treated as separate individuals, despite their uncles, mothers or other relatives subscribing to a certain ideology?” Kaplan said.

This is not a clear-cut question in Turkey anymore, because one of the gravest accusations against the Turkish judiciary is that it routinely violates the principle of individual criminal responsibility. Maybe this new tradition had an effect on Kavuncu, who mentioned his childhood at the courthouse on Wednesday as he pressed charges: “The life I’ve led since I was little is known to all. I am calling on everybody, if you have the slightest doubt, don’t.”

Journalist and Ahval contributor Zülfikar Doğan said Özdağ believed that İYİP deputy chairperson Koray Aydın was pushing people away from Akşener’s close circles. Özdağ himself has focused on Aydın working on getting the MHP and İYİP together, with AKP supporting such relations.

“Aydın looking for an opportunity for such an operation was the word in the back corridors, that he was looking to lead an İYİP-MHP merger and then become the MHP’s next leader,” Doğan wrote. “Maybe Özdağ sought to somehow cut this off.”

Özdağ accusing “the most important provincial chair of his party” of being a FETÖ member was “a move that supported the government’s theses”, according to Doğan.

Ahmet Hakan, executive editor at daily Hürriyet, said Özdağ wanted to come on his discussion programme on CNN Türk to discuss the developments in the İYİP, which, according to Doğan, led to Özdağ being seen as a separatist element from the governing alliance.

Akşener made the connection to Turan’s comments instead of targeting Özdağ, according to Doğan, and said the AKP was behind Özdağ’s outburst. 

“İYİP had surpassed CHP in the latest opinion polls, and attacks from the governing alliance were expected,” Doğan said. “But I don’t want to think that Özdağ would be part of such a ploy.”

Nesrin Nas, former leader of the Motherland Party (ANAP) and lawmaker, disagreed. 

Hakan must have known more or less what Özdağ was going to say, as not everybody could secure a spot on his programme, Nas said. “So shouldn’t (Hakan) have invited other related parties to the discussion?” she asked.

Nas said the pro-MHP faction in the İYİP sprang into action during its party congress when İYİP rejected the government’s invitation to their alliance, while Akşener remained silent and neutral. “So, in an apparently planned move, Özdağ was made to speak on air.”

Kavuncu was an important figure, Nas said, as he worked on the İYİP’s alliance with the CHP during last year’s local elections in which opposition candidates won in several major provinces, including Istanbul and Ankara, where AKP-appointed mayors had governed for more than two decades.

The government has been restricting the political sphere, locking everybody in a nationalist line, which was the reason for the turmoil within the CHP and the İYİP, she said. AKP “criminalised the HDP and separated it out”, while the CHP “works to unite institutional and civil society opposition in an alliance for democracy”, Nas said.

Kurds play the most important role in this alliance, Nas said. “The main problem (for the government) was that İYİP and HDP were getting closer, both inching towards the centre.”

“The government has disrupted the opposition sphere to the extent that it has turned into a quagmire,” Nas said. The AKP and MHP have lost so much support that the MHP probably could not clear Turkey’s 10 percent threshold in parliamentary elections anymore.

“But the opposition is not gaining these votes, because their reputation has also been tarnished, and you can’t play ball on a muddy field. With the Özdağ incident, the mud got deeper and is now pulling everybody down,” she said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.