The Year in Review: Opposition Polarization
I look back on my prediction for 2022
It is that most auspicious time of the year, o dearly beloved, when members of the commentariat pretend to understand what happened in the year just passed, and to know what is about to happen in the year ahead.
My fellow Substackers at Turkey recap are rounding up predictions for 2023, and asked me to contribute. As I was mulling the task, I thought it might be useful to look back on the prediction I wrote for them last year, just to see how I did.
Here it is, published in last year’s newsletter on December 16 (recap #102):
We are at a point where people either expect to vote out the government or they expect it to establish itself beyond removal. So it’s a pregnant moment, and the issues that will define it obviously swirl around economic themes, and specifically involve a revival of the more classical right-left issues, like labor unions, police violence and popular mobilization.
I will concede that the first part about the elections and the economy is more of a forward-leaning situation analysis. Only the second part on right-left issues is a proper prediction.
For what it’s worth, the first part holds up. A lot of pressure was building against the government in the winter of 2022, and everyone was talking about how "elections were around the corner" way before we were even close to the corner. People also kept predicting early elections (because they wanted early elections), and I had to keep batting that question away whenever it would come up.
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I think a big issue this year was whether elections, the one institution that people across the political spectrum respected, were going to retain their power and importance. When Erdoğan’s New Turkey regime was popular, that wasn’t a problem. Erdoğan was confident he could win elections, so he didn’t tamper with the electoral process too much. As his popularity began to slide, however, the palace had to think about making elections less competitive, while maintaining them as spectacles. I wrote about this in an article in October 2021:
Elections for the Erdoğan government have to feel serious enough to grant the government some legitimacy, but they can’t be competitive enough to make it dangerous for them. Think of the ending scenes to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” when the Roman Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) has Maximus (Russell Crowe) under arrest. At this point, Maximus has earned the love of the people as a gladiator and is somewhat of a symbol of defiance against the dictatorial Commodus. He is too popular to simply be executed, so Commodus resolves to face him in the colosseum himself. Before the fight, however, Commodus stabs Maximus in the side and has the wound concealed. The crowd is supposed to think that this is a fair fight, but Maximus is silently bleeding out as he is deflecting the emperor’s blows. In the end, Maximus is able to kill the cheating emperor before succumbing to his wound.
One could argue that banning Ekrem İmamoğlu from running last week was such a move. Erdoğan clearly wanted to run against Kılıçdaroğlu, and disqualifying İmamoğlu in this way would serve to make the election less competitive while maintaining it as a spectacle.
The second part of my prediction looks a bit too optimistic now. The revival of left-right cleavage kind of happened, but not in the issues-based way that I predicted. There were a lot of strikes and union-led protests in the first quarter of the year, but they didn't snowball into political activism and eventually, party-political activity. If it had, perhaps we wouldn’t have as deep a division in the opposition.
The most important polarization in Turkish politics, I argued in this piece from 2020, is not the Erdoğan-opposition polarization, but the left-right polarization within the opposition. Here is my impeccably scientific visual from that article:
The green part is mostly the HDP, the red part mostly the CHP, and teal is mostly İYİ Party. What has been happening in recent months, and what became very obvious last week, when the government essentially banned İmamoğlu from standing in the elections, is that the red part of that graph broke in two. That’s because the opposition is made up of two separate traditions of politics.
Those supporting Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP left, and the HDP, advocate for a decentralized and issue-based politics. What they have in mind is something of a collectivist movement with strong ground game. They aspire to a more radical vision, opposing even legacy capital structures (TÜSİAD, international investors), even if they fall short of it sometimes (landing on Daron Acemoğlu, and bizarrely, Jeremy Rifkin, as advisors). The idea here is that the current political moment, as perilous as it is, harbors the possibility of real structural change.
The İmamoğlu camp is made up of İYİ Party and the CHP right. They have in mind something far more hierarchical and conventional. Their rationale in choosing İmamoğlu is that elections are won by candidates, so you pick the most skilled and ruthless one and you hold on to his coattails as he fights his way to the top. Once you’re in the palace, you implement cookie-cutter (neo)liberal policies, cashing in on the good will you’re sure to get from international financial circles.
If I had been right, the economic issues coming out of the pandemic would be tilting the opposition more towards the left, strengthening the Kılıçdaroğlu camp. Perhaps that would have incentivized İmamoğlu to run much more to the left, and ensured more unity in the CHP, so maybe there wouldn’t have been a reason for the camps to diverge. The İYİ party isn’t too particular about economic policy, so as long as you have a competitive center-right candidate like İmamoğlu, they would have been fine.
As things are, the Kılıçdaroğlu camp thinks that İmamoğlu is an opportunistic megalomaniac who would end up governing more or less like Erdoğan. The İmamoğlu camp thinks that Kılıçdaroğlu is a singularly awful candidate and would probably lose the election.
I can see why the left distrusts İmamoğlu. He has made overtures to right-wing figures like Nihal Atsız, Topal Osman and Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu during his time as mayor, as well as an ill-advised trip with former Erdoğan supporters. Unlike his 2019 campaign, he no longer defends the HDP and Kurdish issues, probably because he needs İYİ Party support against his own party’s boss. He is nakedly self-obsessed and eager to mimic Erdoğan’s political trajectory.
The right-wing opposition thinks that they are (almost by default) more popular than the left, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Babacan was the only person in Saraçhane to even mention Demirtaş, and the crowd cheered more for that than anything else. It goes to show that especially young people want to see someone go up against conservative identitarian politics, not emulate it. The right can, however, claim that their candidate is far more competent and induces a lot more fear in Erdoğan.
So it’s not an easy choice for the opposition, and there’s smart, well-meaning people on both sides of this struggle. Whoever ends up winning, the important thing will be for the other half to swing behind them and campaign as hard as they can.
I’m now thinking about my prediction for 2023. I’ll try to take bigger risks this time, including predicting the election outcome. It’ll probably be wrong in important ways, but hopefully I’ll get another post out of it this time next year.
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