Following a year of halting negotiations, six of Turkey’s opposition parties have finally united behind a single presidential candidate for the election in May, with the hope of ending Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic and repressive two-decade rule.
This month, the Table of Six conference converged on social democratic and secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu after having sidelined younger, more charismatic contenders such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP, who recaptured the city from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in 2019.
When an authoritarian populist regime is rigging the democratic game, it is common sense that opposition parties must combine forces to stand any chance of winning elections.
However, such unity, while necessary, is not sufficient for success. The hardest part comes after the decision to unite.
Opposition parties that unite to remove a leader or party — especially “a populist strongman” — must place that imperative above their other programmatic commitments. Populist leaders have a proven track record of undermining democracy, and there is every reason to believe they would do even more damage if re-elected.
For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the immediate aftermath of unfair elections — when the opposition and civil society were utterly demoralized — to ram through controversial policies and engage in culture-war provocations.
Budapest’s mendacious memorial to the German occupation, which effectively absolves Hungary of any complicity in the Holocaust, was erected right after the 2014 election.
However, as sensible as this “damage-control” imperative is, it implies that all politics revolves around the strongman. That is exactly what populist leaders want. They excel at using polarization and personalization to their advantage: “It’s everyone against me, the only leader who truly represents the people.”
Important recent work by political scientists has shown that not everyone who votes for authoritarian populist leaders is ignorant of or indifferent to their undermining of democracy — not to mention corruption, another hallmark of populist governments.
However, when confronted with an us-versus-them logic and an opposition coalition whose ultimate intentions are uncertain, they might still opt for what they perceive as the lesser evil.
Moreover, united opposition parties tend to settle on candidates who look a lot like the figure they are opposing, only more democratic.
Last year, Hungary’s opposition alliance agreed to back a conservative Catholic provincial mayor in its effort to remove the far-right populist incumbent.
Similarly, successive Israeli opposition coalitions have sought to beat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by putting forward tough center-right figures such as former Israeli army general Benny Gantz.
The common assumption seems to be that the restoration of democracy is best overseen by old men. It worked for the Democrats in the US in 2020, and for Western Europe after World War II, when paternalist figures such as Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle dominated German and French politics respectively.
However, such strategies often fail, either because they make the opposition look purely reactive, or — less obviously — because they send defeatist signals that the political parameters established by the ruling populists have become the new normal.
In Turkey, the Table of Six has yielded to nationalist pressure and rebuffed the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.
Similarly, the opposition to Netanyahu’s far-right Israeli government still refuses to include Arab representatives. Strong nationalism — and weak attention to minority rights — is taken as a political given.
Even if anti-populists can unite against a common opponent, changing the parameters of politics is a much more difficult task.
Rather than appealing to shared dislike of the strongman, they must discuss a broader set of issues and return to questions of policy programs and basic principles. While ideological heterogeneity can be set aside in the name of defeating a populist incumbent, it could return with a vengeance once that task is accomplished, and that this is common knowledge leaves voters with doubts about how the coalition would actually govern.
To its credit, the Table of Six has outlined structural reforms that would go a long way toward restoring the rule of law and dismantling the hyper-presidential system that has given Erdogan virtually unlimited powers.
The Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council and the Council of Higher Education — the kinds of institutions populists specialize in capturing, in the name of “the people” — would become autonomous again.
By committing to rely on impersonal institutions instead of sultan-style rule, the opposition promises a departure from Erdogan’s hyper-inflationary — “unorthodox” — economic strategies and erratic foreign policy.
However, the promise of “institutionalism” is abstract, and it can easily be challenged by highlighting high-profile conflicts over policy and personnel within the heterogenous opposition alliance.
To prevail, opposition leaders have to demonstrate an underappreciated political skill: framing the terms of the election rather than merely reacting to the other side. They cannot assume that corruption would topple the ruling party. They also must stress what has gone wrong and find powerful symbols — not just torturously negotiated policy papers — that give a sense of what a different future would feel like.
For the Turkish opposition, the recent earthquake — and the regime’s failures before and after that catastrophe — would be an obvious reference point in the run-up to the election.
However, symbolizing a different future is a more demanding challenge.
Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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