Turkish Opposition Begins Joining Ranks Against Erdogan

With an eye on elections, six parties are working on a plan to end a powerful presidency and return to a parliamentary system.,


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ISTANBUL — Turkish opposition parties are presenting an increasingly united and organized front aimed at replacing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and even forcing early elections in the coming year to challenge his 19-year rule.

As they negotiate a broad alliance among themselves, the leaders of six opposition parties appear to have agreed on turning the next election into a kind of referendum on the presidential system that Mr. Erdogan introduced four years ago and considers one of his proudest achievements.

His opponents say that presidential system has allowed Mr. Erdogan to concentrate nearly authoritarian power — fueling corruption and allowing him to rule by decree, dictate monetary policy, control the courts and jail tens of thousands of political opponents.

By making the change back to a parliamentary system a centerpiece of its agenda, Mr. Erdogan’s opposition hopes to shift debate to the fundamental question of the deteriorating health of Turkey’s democracy.

The forming of a broad opposition alliance is a strategy being employed in an increasing number of countries where leaders with authoritarian tendencies — whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia or Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary — have enhanced their powers by exploiting fissures among their opponents. Most recently, the approach worked in elections in the Czech Republic, where a broad coalition of center-right parties came together to defeat Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

Now it may be Turkey’s turn.

“Today, Turkey is facing a systemic problem. Not just one person can solve it,” said Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr. Erdogan’s former prime minister and one of the members of the opposition alliance. “The more important question is: ‘How do you solve this systemic earthquake, and how do you re-establish democratic principles based on human rights?'”

Mr. Erdogan has long planned a year of celebrations for 2023, the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and allied occupation after World War I.

Political analysts suggest that not only is he determined to secure another presidential term in elections that are due before June 2023, but also to secure his legacy as modern Turkey’s longest-serving leader, longer even than the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.


A statue of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, the capital.Credit…Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet Mr. Erdogan, who has always prided himself on winning at the ballot box, has been sliding steadily in the opinion polls, battered by an economic crisis, persistent allegations of corruption and entitlement and a youthful population chafing for change.

For the first time in several years of asking, more respondents in a recent poll said Mr. Erdogan would lose than said he would win, Ozer Sencar, the head of Metropoll, one of the most reliable polling organizations, said in a Twitter post this week.

“The opposition seems to have the momentum on their side,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “One way or another, they convinced a large section of society that Erdogan is not a lifetime president and could be gone in 2023. That Turks are now discussing the possibility of a post-Erdogan Turkey is quite remarkable.”

No one is counting Mr. Erdogan out yet. He remains a popular politician and sits at the helm of an effective state apparatus, Ms. Aydintasbas added. An improvement in the economy and a maneuver to split the opposition could be enough for him to hold on.

Mr. Erdogan dismissed the polls as lies and carried on doing what he knows best: a flurry of high-level meetings and some saber-rattling that keeps him at the top of the news at home. One recent weekend, he pushed a shopping cart around a low-cost supermarket and promised more such stores to keep prices down for shoppers.

This week, he set off on a four-country tour of West Africa after hosting the departing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for her farewell visit to Turkey over the weekend. He is presenting Turkey as an indispensable mediator with Afghanistan, and his foreign minister received a delegation of the Taliban from Kabul last week. For good measure, Mr. Erdogan threatened another military operation against Kurdish fighters in Syria.


Mr. Erdogan and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany after a news conference this month in Istanbul.Credit…Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But at home, his opponents are getting organized.

Among those lining up to do battle are Mr. Davutoglu and a former finance minister, Ali Babacan, both former members of Mr. Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., who have set up new parties.

Emerging from five years in the cold after falling out with Mr. Erdogan and resigning as prime minister and leader of the party, Mr. Davutoglu is hoping to chip away at the president’s loyal support base and help bring down his onetime friend and ally.

Alongside them, the strongest players in the six-party alliance are the center-left Republican People’s Party and the nationalist Good Party, headed by Turkey’s leading female politician, Meral Aksener.

The largest pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic People’s Party, or H.D.P. — whose charismatic former leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is in prison — is not part of the alliance, nor are smaller left-wing parties.

But all of the parties share a mutual aim: to offer the electorate an alternative to Mr. Erdogan in 2023.

Despite their gaping political and ideological differences, the opposition is hoping to replicate its success in local elections in 2019 when it wrested the biggest cities, including Istanbul, from the ruling A.K.P.

“It is a good start for the opposition,” Mr. Demirtas said from prison in an interview with a Turkish reporter. “What is important is the development of a deliberative, pluralistic, courageous and pro-solidarity understanding of politics that will contribute to the development of a culture of democracy.”


Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of the People’s Democratic Party, in 2014 in his office in Ankara. He remains a powerful voice for the party from a prison cell.Credit…Monique Jaques for The New York Times

Mr. Erdogan spent the past six months trying to drive a wedge into their loose alliance without success, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Opposition leaders steered through that and have come closer to settling on a candidate who could defeat Mr. Erdogan and whom they can all support. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has emerged as the front-runner for now.

“They have closed ranks, solved their problems and raised the stakes,” Mr. Unluhisarcikli said.

Fore their part, Mr. Davutoglu and Mr. Babacan represent little challenge to Mr. Erdogan as vote-getters — Mr. Davutoglu’s Future Party polls at barely 1 or 2 percent — but they bring considerable weight of government experience to the opposition.

Both still have ties to many officials in the bureaucracy, Mr. Unluhisarcikli said, and could help the opposition convince the electorate that it is capable of running the country and of lifting it out of its current dysfunction.

Mr. Davutoglu was the first to publish his plan for returning to a parliamentary system. In the document, he blamed the presidential system for creating a personalized and arbitrary administration that became inaccessible to citizens even as their problems were mounting.

He proposed that the president become a symbolic head of state, divested of powers to rule by decree, veto laws and approve the budget, and the judiciary be made independent.


“Today, Turkey is facing a systemic problem. Not just one person can solve it,” said Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr. Erdogan’s former prime minister and one of the members of the opposition alliance.Credit…Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press

Mr. Davutoglu has suggested that Mr. Erdogan, who instituted the presidential system with a narrowly won referendum in 2017, could choose to revert to a parliamentary system with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, or the opposition would seek to do so after an election.

For the opposition, he said, reaching an agreement on reconstituting a democratic system is more important than finding a candidate. Just in the past year of touring the country meeting voters, he said he has seen a shift in attitudes even in A.K.P. strongholds.

“A significant portion of Turkish voters have left the A.K.P. but don’t know where to go,” Ms. Aydintasbas said. “Davutoglu and Babacan may be small in numbers, but they speak to a very critical community — disgruntled conservatives and conservative Kurds who no longer trust Erdogan but are worried about a revanchist return of the secularists. Their role is indispensable.”

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