Turkey watchers in Washington were afforded a rare sighting a few months back: the first ever appearance in the city by the head of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main Turkish opposition party.
The visit by the party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered former bureaucrat, was dismissed by many as ineffective (to be fair, it's hard to be noticed when your adversary is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan). But the underlying point of the trip was worth noting -- after years of wandering in the political wilderness, mostly through its own doing, and of being dismissed at home and abroad as utterly hopeless, the CHP was again trying to make itself relevant.
Checking in with Washington was a welcome move, but, of course, becoming politically relevant in Turkey requires, well, succeeding in Turkey. In that sense, Sunday's local elections will provide a crucial test for the CHP's efforts to revitalize the party and present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Failure by the CHP to score some solid victories at the polls -- holding on to Izmir, winning either Ankara or Istanbul and boosting its share of the national vote -- will put into question not only its future viability as an opposition party, but will also have profound implications for the future of democratic politics in Turkey.
On paper, the CHP should be heading into Sunday's vote feeling confident. After years of the CHP being reflexively anti-Western, predictably conspiracy theory-minded and frequently anti-democratic in its behavior, it is the AKP that has now become Turkey's most cartoonish and sadly predictable political party. Furthermore, last summer's nationwide Gezi protests and the AKP's harsh response to them meant that many of Turkey's major urban centers have been left with large number angry and disaffected potential voters ready to punish the government. The large scale corruption probes that were launched on December 17 and Erdogan's increasingly autocratic behavior in their wake, including bans on social media, should also be expected to raise the level of voter dissatisfaction.
Erdogan's falling out with the Islamic Gulen movement, whose network of media outlets and grassroots organizations had in previous years been put in service of supporting the AKP, further strengthens the CHP's theoretical odds, offering the party the tantalizing possibility of a new stream of support. And, perhaps most significantly, the traditionally left-of-center party -- once known for running Kemalist party hacks in crucial races -- this time around decided to enlarge its tent and field and run the popular Mustafa Sarigul, who had been previously kicked out of the party, in Istanbul and some right-of-center candidates in other key places (most crucially in Ankara), a move that should also allow the party to tap into a new stream of voters.
So, where does the CHP stand on the eve of this crucial election? Considering how much wind it should have in its sails, the party appears to be heading into the election without a significant bump in its prospects. Writes political scientist and veteran election observer Ali Carkoglu in highly informative paper he recently wrote for the Brookings Institution:
For the time being, the Turkish public does not appear to be changing its party preferences. Dozens of polls published over the past few months diagnose only a slight decline in the support for the AKP that does not close the large gap it commands over the opposition parties. Besides technically poor polling and potential manipulation of the published results, the lack of a decline in AKP support after the corruption scandals might be due to the lack of a credible opposition.
The CHP is expected to hold on to Izmir, one of its long-time strongholds, and its Ankara candidate, Mansur Yavas, a former member of the rightist National Movement Party (MHP), is giving the incumbent, Melih Gokcek, a run for his money. Gokcek, a certified lunatic who had earned the moniker "Mad Melih," is running for a fifth term and just may have exhausted enough people's patience. Writes the Hurriyet Daily News's Murat Yetkin about the race:
The CHP candidate in Ankara is a considerable rival to Gökçek. Kılıçdaroğlu took a great risk when he picked Mansur Yavaş, who had been the candidate for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the previous local elections. Like Sarıgül in Istanbul, he proved himself as a successful district mayor, in the Beypazarı township of Ankara and is known as a conservative but secular, moderate politician. It now seems that he has started to close the gap. (In the 2009 locals the AK Parti got 38.5 percent, the CHP got 31.5 percent, and the MHP got 26.8 percent of the vote.) Now, many names from the MHP, former center-right parties, and even the AK Parti, are now supporting Yavaş’s campaign for the CHP.
If he closes that gap and takes Ankara, or in other words, if Gökçek loses Ankara, that could be the start of the fall of Erdoğan in ballot box terms as well.
That leaves the matter of winning Istanbul, which even CHP insiders admit is a long shot at this point. In the early days of the race, party officials suggested that winning the Istanbul mayor's office is a crucial step towards the party reclaiming national dominance, but at this point they have downgraded these claims to say that a competitive showing in Istanbul might suffice. Still, considering the high hopes the CHP had for Sarigul -- a highly charismatic but highly problematic figure -- and his candidacy, failing to win in Istanbul will mark a major setback for the party.
Winning in Istanbul was never going to be easy -- the current mayor, Kadir Topbas, despite his AKP affiliation, is well liked and has managed to stay out of the larger political fight raging between Erdogan and the opposition. Still, considering the post-Gezi political climate, the fact that the CHP is approaching the election with such diminished expectations raises big questions about its future, most important that of if the the party's brand is so diminished that it simply has no hope of becoming a realistic alternative to the AKP. Or, to put it another way, can a party so identified with Kemalism find a way to rebrand itself and succeed in what is clearly a post-Kemalist Turkey?
A poor showing by the opposition on Sunday, though, would raise even more crucial questions about the future course of Turkish democracy. Erdogan has staked his legitimacy on these coming elections, campaigning to the point of completely losing his voice, and will look at a strong showing on Sunday -- coming in spite of all the recent scandals and allegations facing him and the AKP -- as an affirmation of his belief that winning at the ballot box allows him to pursue his agenda as he sees fit. Considering The PM's recent moves -- among them banning Twitter and YouTube, diminishing the independence of the judiciary and employing rhetoric that has dangerously worsened existing political divides in Turkey -- an unfettered Erdogan is a scary thought, indeed. Rarely have local elections had so much significance.