What is wrong with our opposition parties?

After losing five general and three local elections, one presidential election and two referenda, Turkey’s opposition parties have yet to reinvent themselves to match the savvy political machine of the AKP. The two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) remain defeated, staffed with mediocre personalities and still without convincing political platforms. The Turkish electorate very much recognizes these deficiencies and severely punished them for that on Nov. 1.

The MHP particularly suffered heavily in the Nov. 1 election and that was no coincidence. The MHP’s leader, Devlet Bahceli, totally miscalculated the post-June 7 mood and was the greatest contributor to the AKP’s Nov. 1 victory. The CHP demonstrated once again that regardless of what it does it has considerable difficulty surpassing the 25 percent it obtained on Nov. 1. Part of it is identity politics. President Erdogan has successfully boxed all four parties into particular identities. Thanks to the CHP’s self-defeating choices, the party is perceived as a party that is dominated by Turkey’s Alevis. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is seen as the Kurds’ party while the AKP and MHP share the Sunni vote. In a modern society these identities should not matter as much, but in a conservative country like Turkey they matter, and the election results confirm that.

There is also a generational issue. Both the MHP and CHP are much older parties than the AKP and the HDP. Their organizations and their structures are very static with little room for change. The CHP has great difficulty connecting with the conservative electorate. Cosmetic changes in the choice of candidates are not adequate to attract conservative votes. The party needs fundamental restructuring at the expense of its Alevi and nationalist (ulusalcı)-dominated organization. The MHP has a serious leadership issue, which will be addressed in the coming months. However, the MHP also suffers from an extremely rigid institutional culture, which is plagued by paranoia and mistrust. Also, its political platform does not say much beyond anti-Kurdish politics and a strong anti- terrorism approach.

Ultimately, neither the CHP nor the MHP has been able to convince the electorate that they can manage the economy, administer the state and direct the country’s foreign policy better than the AKP. Having experienced considerable economic turmoil in the 1990s, the Turkish electorate is unlikely to vote these parties in unless they undertake radical reform. First and foremost, neither the CHP nor the MHP leadership is fit to challenge Erdogan. They need much stronger and politically savvy personalities. Given the increasingly hegemonic position of the AKP, its control over the media and big business, this will prove much more difficult than in the past. Until and unless these parties attract new and credible talent, it is difficult to see how they will ever start restructuring themselves. The alternative of course is that a new political actor emerges, but this would also be extremely difficult given the current political atmosphere in the country. Brace yourselves for more misery on the opposition side.