The West is ignoring Turkey’s opposition

Instead of seeking to oust Erdogan, the West should ensure that Turkey’s isolated political opposition receives greater attention.


2017/09/17 Issue: 123 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr



The erosion of dem­ocratic institu­tions in Tur­key should be a major concern for the Europe­an Union and the United States. The West has de­cried and lamented the downward turn of events in Turkey but done little more.

Why it has ignored one of the most viable political opposition groupings in the Middle East is mystifying. The largest and long-established opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has for years pleaded with Europe for support. “Turkey’s current problems can be better solved within the EU process, which should be re-energised by both the EU and Turkey,” the CHP’s of­fice in Brussels has written. “The reinforcement of Turkish de­mocracy is a common European interest.”

Turkey’s opposition parties encompass a wide and varied constellation of interests and ide­ologies but, because political par­ties must win at least 10% of the national vote to enter parliament, Turks outside the mainstream secularist or social conservative milieu have no political voice.

Turkey’s parliamentary opposi­tion consists of three parties: The CHP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). While the right-wing MHP has worked closely with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to advance its anti-Kurdish agenda, the CHP and HDP, at least on paper, share a social democratic, centre-left-leaning worldview. Together, they represent a dangerous threat to the AKP.

The West’s refusal to engage with these parties is all the more baffling considering the groups elsewhere in the Middle East it has been behind in the past.

For example, when Syrian Pres­ident Bashar Assad’s rule came under threat of collapse in 2012, Washington quickly stepped in and lavished funds on Syria’s fragmented and baseless political opposition. Its efforts were futile and the Syrian regime has clearly — and unfortunately for democ­racy in that country — regained the upper hand.

Before that, the United States was a main backer of Iraqi opposi­tion groups during the violent rule of Saddam Hussein to, as the 2003 invasion and war made clear, devastating effect.

And yet Turkey had a far more grounded and legiti­mate political opposition, a grouping that came within a whisker of thwarting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-democratic constitutional changes that passed following last April’s referendum.

Europe and the West claim they need Erdogan to combat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and to control refugee flows into Europe. This argument holds no water — the West needs a Turkish govern­ment to conduct these projects — the success of these issues does not rest on Erdogan’s shoulders alone.

Why has the West ignored Tur­key’s opposition? The first reason is that, as mentioned above, it and Washington in particular have seen their fingers burned by dec­ades of failed efforts in Iraq and elsewhere, in large part due to poor intelligence and judgment.

The second is that though many Turks who oppose Erdogan see themselves as being secular, it does not make them the kind of democrats the West would like to support: Past secular, military-led Turkish governments were responsible for major human rights offences during the 1980s and 1990s that scared the West away from involvement in Turk­ish affairs. Things have changed, however, and the military is no longer a political force.

It goes without saying that regime change in Turkey should never be something Western gov­ernments or institutions should seek to pursue either openly or covertly. Anti-American senti­ment is higher in Turkey (a 2014 Pew Research poll put it at 73%) than most other countries in a region that is broadly hostile to the United States. On top of this, there is a widespread far-left anti-imperialism deeply rooted in the Turkish imagination.

Instead of seeking to oust Erdogan, the West should ensure that Turkey’s isolated political op­position receives greater attention and support if democracy isn’t to disappear entirely.

Erdogan is no longer a depend­able ally to the West but Turkey remains an important player. It is too late for democracy in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Let’s not wait for Turkey to join that club.


Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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