For much of 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan relied on foreign-policy adventurism to divert attention from Turkey’s economic crisis and his AK Party’s political travails. His aggressive forays in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Eastern Mediterranean helped overshadow the political reversals of the previous year, when the AKP lost local elections in major cities — none more embarrassing than that of Erdogan’s old stronghold of Istanbul — and a significant decline in membership.
But the strategy may have reached its limits: Neither investors nor the general public seem to be buying Erdogan’s promise of a new economic era. More generally, the president and his party seem to be losing the confidence of large political constituencies, including urbanites and young conservatives.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic proving more resilient than expected, and hopes for a smart economic rebound in 2021 crumbling, Turkey’s opposition parties are gunning to regain the initiative. Erdogan may ignore their calls for early general elections — they are scheduled for the summer of 2023 — but he can expect his political rivals to press him every step of the way.
Among those waiting to pounce are Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the main opposition party, the CHP, and its brightest stars, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the high-profile mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively. But the opposition’s best chances of bringing Erdogan down may rest on two women from opposite sides of the political spectrum: Meral Aksener, head of the Iyi Party, and Canan Kaftancioglu, the CHP’s Istanbul chief.
The two could hardly be more different. Aksener, 64 is a nationalist and member of Turkey’s political elite, having previously served as interior minister. Known as Asena after a mythical Turkish she-wolf, she makes no bones of her desire to replace Erdogan as president, and ran against him in 2018. Kaftancioglu, 48, revels in her image as a “motorcycle-riding, leftist feminist,” and although her views are more radical than most in her own party, she is respected for having orchestrated the AKP’s 2019 humiliation in Istanbul.
Both their parties are keen to capitalize on the space opening up in Turkey’s political center as Erdogan leads his party rightward. This move puts the AKP in a collision course with its coalition partner, the far-right MHP. Iyi, or “Good Party,” represents the challenge from the center-right, and CHP from the center-left.
Aksener has traveled in the opposite direction from Erdogan: She broke away from the MHP to maneuver her way toward the center. Even so, she retains strong nationalist credentials that make her a difficult target for the AKP-MHP combine; they would much prefer her as an ally. But she has flatly turned down calls — “not even if they put a gun to my head” — to return to the MHP fold and join the ruling coalition.
Kaftancioglu, on the other hand, is an easy and frequent target for Erdogan and the pro-AKP media. She is appealing a 10-year sentence on charges, mostly relating to old tweets, of insulting the president, inciting hatred and promoting terrorism. She is also being assailed for allegedly covering up charges of sexual assault against party colleagues.
Her supporters say the ferocity of the attacks only demonstrates the degree to which Erdogan and his allies fear Kaftancioglu and her ability to turn out the vote for the CHP. Nearly a fifth of Turks live in Istanbul, making it crucial to the opposition’s hopes of ending the AKP’s two-decade dominance of Turkish politics.
Defeating Erdogan remains a tall order: Remember, he won in 2018 with nearly 53% of the vote, while the CHP’s Muharrem Ince got less than 31% and Aksener just over 7%. The AKP-MHP alliance won a clear majority in parliament, well ahead of a coalition that included the CHP and Iyi Party.
Turkey’s economic and political landscape has shifted since then, weakening Erdogan and the AKP, but a change to the status quo will still require a strong show of opposition unity. A winning coalition will be hard to pull off without substantial help from the Kurds, but they will be wary of Aksener’s nationalism and are resentful of the CHP’s failure to stand up for Kurdish politicians under attack from the Erdogan government.
Still, Erdogan will enter 2021 facing the strongest opposition of his career at the top of Turkish politics. And the pairing of Aksener and Kaftancioglu represents an unprecedented double threat for the president and his party.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.