The government and President Erdoğan are currently facing domestic criticism for the mismanagement of forest fires. The criticism includes the systemic question of the concentration of power in the presidential system, which has made independent decision-making almost impossible. Abroad (as in Turkey), the criticism has been focusing for many years on the government's increasingly authoritarian course, human rights, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary and media. This creates the impression, both in Turkey and abroad, that the opposition is more democratic, more liberal, pro-freedom, more solution-oriented than the government and that its voters are a kind of Swedish Turks, longing for a democratic system with broad rights for all ways of life, different ethnic and religious groups.
This situation spared most parts of the opposition largely from criticism and questioning of their alternative policy visions. Looking closer, the de-facto alliance between AKP and MHP has moved the AKP further to the right, making it since 2016 decisively more nationalist, more security oriented, more unilateral than in the “golden years” of democratization some 15 years ago. However, this move to the right has not pushed the opposition parties (except the HDP) to the center or further to the left, but has caused a fierce competition about who is the better far right than the government. An interlocutor in Ankara put it that the political center in Turkey now is the far right.
There are numerous recent examples. In July, there was the infamous Bolu mayor of the “social democratic” opposition, who wanted to charge foreign citizens a 10-fold fee for the water bills and waste taxes. Even if he was also criticized by the CHP headquarter for this racist-motivated move, the city assembly’s majority of CHP and İYİ Party voted in favor of the bill, while the AKP and MHP opposed it. Bolu is not known to be a city packed with ex-pats and foreigners who work for multi-national companies, the main foreign group to settle there are Syrians. In general, the attitude towards refugees, be it Syrians since 2011 or Afghans who have been coming in high numbers since the Taliban are taking over step by step Afghan territory, has been more negative, racist and aggressive among the millet alliance (CHP, İYİ) than among the AKP/MHP. On Aug. 6, the İYİ Party mayor of Sungurlu (Çorum) stated that he would refuse to host Afghan refugees, because those fleeing their country can’t be honorable people. How İYİ Party manages to be seen as a sort of liberal party, at least abroad, remains a mystery.
The overemphasis on the policies, scandals and failures of the government tends to overlook whether the opposition would offer any alternatives other than not being the AKP and Erdoğan. When it comes to foreign policy, the opposition (except for the HDP) usually votes with the government. This applies to cross-border military operations, relations with neighboring states, but also EU policies. Expecting a pro-EU agenda from the opposition is very bold, as the CHP had opposed unification in Cyprus in 2004 and during that time had rejected virtually all pro-EU reforms of the government, often taking them to the Constitutional Court, so much that an NGO had called a competition to see who could carry a bill to the Constitutional Court faster than the CHP.
But even domestically, there is little reason to believe that the opposition would pursue fundamentally different policies. On one of the most important issues since the founding of the republic, the Kurdish question, no one is presenting concrete steps. Muharrem İnce, a former CHP politician and now chairman of the Memleket Party, said that Kurdish is from a pedagogical point of view not good for the education system. The CHP was working on a "Kurdish report" that was supposed to be presented at a congress last year, but has never been made public and will probably never be published. İYİ Party is avoiding the topic, the most it offered so far, was Meral Akşener's visit to Bingöl. Gelecek and especially DEVA are rhetorically more open, but still very small in surveys and both party chairpersons were not known for positive steps towards the Kurdish issue when being AKP ministers.
The only issue on which there is broad agreement, at least rhetorically, is the return to a (strengthened) parliamentary system, a strengthening of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. However, we do not know what this will look like in detail. When Mithat Sancar (now HDP co-chairman) was not yet a politician but a law professor at Ankara University, he published a study on what judges and prosecutors think about human rights and the rule of law. This was at the beginning of the first AKP legislature, when the judiciary still had a clear majority of Kemalist jurists. The result was that the vast majority of leading jurists did not care about the rule of law and human rights, especially when the state was at stake.
Being now roughly one year ahead of the next elections, which most likely will take place in fall 2022, there should be more emphasis on the policy alternatives of the opposition, pushing them to present concrete policy options that people can see if, where and how they differ from the governing coalition. The CHP gives the impression that it thinks the government will be handed over to them, because of the problems of the government, inner-fighting, the bad economic situation and outlook, the pandemic etc.. However, it won’t be that easy and Erdoğan knows how to fight an election campaign. If voters realize that the main opposition parties don’t differ substantially from the current government, who could blame them if they then stick to what they have been knowing for almost 20 years.