October 26, 2015

Strategic patience in Turkey’s opposition

Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkey's growing and increasingly resilient opposition has successfully employed what one may call “strategic patience” to wear down the authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist associates, who have been throwing punches in every direction including useless ones into the air for some time.

Instead of confronting Erdoğan on his terms and his turf, the opposition chose to play its own message to the constituency, leaving him on the defensive. By doing so, the opposition eventually robbed him of the power to drive the agenda in the national debate. Erdoğan's game plan since the Gezi Park protests of the summer of 2013, during which 3 million people took to the streets in mass anti-government rallies, has been to respond to challenges with a show of force, often with brute and harsh tactics. That might have helped him consolidate his base, with more polarization and tension injected into the society in the short run.

Yet Erdoğan has overplayed his hand. His tactical moves, once proven to be effective, now often end in vain and dishearten him. Neither the political nor the civic opposition is being fooled into playing Erdoğan's game anymore, which is a source of frustration for the president and his thugs. On the political front, all three of the major political parties have the capacity to mobilize millions; yet, they are restraining their grass roots from taking to the streets en masse. They know that Erdoğan's paramilitary forces and mafia groups on the government payroll, helped by the renegade factions within the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), are ready to hijack their peaceful rallies.

Therefore, they are being patient. The most prudent political leader seems to be main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. The hate-mongering president tried to provoke the CHP leader by playing the sectarian card against him. Erdoğan publicly called on him to not be ashamed of his Alevi identity last year, as if he was, stigmatizing millions of Alevis in the country. Sectarian politics, never played openly in Turkey as part of the political discourse in campaign rallies, was brought to the fore for the first time by the divider-in-chief, Erdoğan.

Adding insult to injury, Erdoğan has continued bashing the Alevis since the Gezi Park protests during which many Alevi citizens were either killed or injured, the result of police crackdowns personally ordered by him to the field commanders.

Unashamedly, he even verbally attacked a grieving mother who had lost her 14-year-old son, Berkin Elvan, after the teen got hit in the head by a teargas canister deployed by the police. In rallies, Erdoğan had worked the crowds to get them to boo Berkin's mother, who was already devastated by her terrible loss.

The CHP leader was quick to realize that Erdoğan was hoping to consolidate Sunni support by marginalizing and stigmatizing the Alevis. He was careful with his responses to Erdoğan. The CHP leader, whose party received some 12 million votes in the June elections, could easily have mobilized millions against Erdoğan, yet he wisely chose not to do so. Instead, he opted for strategic patience in dealing with this top political Islamist politician and resisted the urge to react to every provocation Erdoğan has plotted.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader, Devlet Bahçeli, has also acted very reasonably in the face of agitations by Erdoğan, who wanted to cast nationalists into the street and push them into violence. After his former Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the majority for the first time in 13 years of rule, the president orchestrated nationwide riots ostensibly organized by the MHP's youth branches and targeted the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and CHP offices. Bahçeli held back his grass roots from becoming embroiled in the provocations and warned them against getting dragged into street fights. It later turned out that the riots were organized by the Ottoman Hearths, a youth branch led by notorious mafia groups that were being groomed by Erdoğan as a paramilitary force. Bahçeli could have easily moved some of his 8 million voters; yet he decided not to do so.

Frankly, the HDP has borne the brunt of Erdoğan's vicious campaign, comprising vitriolic speeches and clandestine plots, both before and after the June 7 election. Even the undercover intelligence agents who infiltrated the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and some hard-core PKK commanders who are worried about being marginalized in the face of the HDP's tremendous success in the election are united in undermining the HDP and discrediting its charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtaş. Despite coming under fire from both sides, the HDP leader has continued advising his supporters to employ restraint, caution and common sense. He openly took a position against the violence and armed clashes and asked his 6 million voters, mostly Kurds, to let their voices be heard by exercising the right to vote on election day.

If strategic patience were not an influential factor in the conduct of the opposition, Turkey would have seen major upheavals in the last several years alone, perhaps on a much larger scale than the Gezi events, paving the way for Erdoğan to sustain his rule amid the deepening chaos. In fact, meeting with the caretaker, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, right after the deadliest terror attack in the republic's history that claimed the lives of 102 people in Ankara, Kılıçdaroğlu made clear that if the political process fails to address the nation's problems, then Turkey will be dragged into unchartered and highly dangerous waters.

Again, while addressing the crowd downtown right after the Ankara attacks that mostly targeted his supporters, the HDP leader emphasized that if Kurds strike simultaneously and stomp, then the windows of Erdoğan's lavish, newly built palace will be shattered. Yet he appealed for patience and pointed to the ballot box as the means for voters to make their voices heard loud and clear. Similarly, Bahçeli has recently called on Erdoğan to stop plotting against the nation in what he called the dark dungeons of his palace or he will send his supporters to bring the palace down on his head.

Yet the political leaders of the opposition remained restrained and reasonable in the face of the craziness being displayed by Erdoğan and his associates. By not falling into the president's trap, each of them has let the president take the blame during every instance in which he thought of something dirty to use as a means to provoke the opposition and benefit from the violence.

On the civic opposition, Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been targeted by Erdoğan in a vicious campaign of persecution, hate and slander, did not reciprocate the president's hateful narratives. Despite the fact that Gülen could easily have mobilized millions of his followers in Turkey, he has always advised patience and caution, telling his supporters about the importance of reaching out, dialogue and forgiveness. Similarly, the civic movements campaigning on the secular/leftist ideology or advocacy groups that fight for the equal rights of Turkey's diverse ethnic and religious groups have all shied away from playing into Erdoğan's war-mongering tactics.

I think the patience of Turks is an innate characteristic, and it is by nature that they use patience now, in the face of the immense challenges that currently exist, from the economic difficulties and massive crackdown on democratic freedoms to the substantial security challenges and the huge influx of Syrian refugees. With this strategic patience, the nation was able to overcome military coups, authoritarian regimes and repressive single-party rule in the past. Surely, they will get rid of Erdoğan's authoritarian one-man regime as well. He has been destroying himself and his party for some time now. Judging from the increased signs of panic and distress among Erdoğan's ranks, it is only a matter of time before he will be done with politics for good.

Strategic patience requires working through problematic issues over time and carefully thinking ahead when deciding how and when to engage with authoritarian personalities. At times, managing the process proves to be very difficult and involves resisting the urge to take actions in haste. Yet one ought to be looking forward from a strategic vantage point rather than giving in to the desire to make a quick profit off rapidly developing events. The resilient opposition in Turkey has proven they are capable of doing that. At this critical juncture, the question is whether or not this strategic patience, although necessary, is enough to overcome Turkey's Erdoğan challenge. Perhaps a little nudge by those who have a vested interest in keeping Turkey stable and democratic wouldn't hurt.

Published on Today's Zaman, 26 October 2015, Monday