Discovery of Natural Gas Exposes Turkey’s Political Rifts

The opposition in Turkey accuses President Erdogan of consolidating his power, and the hydrocarbon discovery in the Black Sea may further serve his interests.
Ali Demirdas, Turkey Greece Mediterranean, Turkish politics news, Recep Tayyip Erdogan news, Turkey opposition, Turkey history, Turkey coups, Erdogan alliance, Turkey 2023 elections, Hagia Sophia mosque

Pictures of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Istanbul, Turkey, 2/14/2014 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

September 01, 2020 09:14 EDT

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement on August 21 that Turkey had discovered some 320 billion cubic meters of natural gas in the Black Sea has exposed the acutely divided domestic political environment in the country. Whereas the pro-Erdogan camp hailed the development as an important milestone toward the government’s declared ambition to become a leading global power — it has the potential to significantly reduce Turkey’s current account deficit — the opposition, particularly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), sent out messages that disdained the importance of the discovery by declaring it financially unfeasible.

The secretary general of the CHP, Selin Sayek Boke, went so far as to argue that Erdogan is going to use the gas for his own ends. Engin Atalay, the deputy chairman of CHP’s parliamentary group, had previously declared that “Even if the government has done the best thing in the world, we will unconditionally criticize and refuse it,” which is indicative of the opposition’s modus operandi.

The New Cold War in the Middle East


So, what explains the opposition’s hostility toward this seemingly groundbreaking development in the Black Sea, as well as its steadfast total rejection of government actions? Simply put, it is part of the opposition’s long-time perception that Erdogan is consolidating his power and that the hydrocarbon discovery may serve his interests. This state of mind is also a reflection of the opposition’s fear that it is running out of options to stop Erdogan’s rise.

Safety Valve

Since CHP’s inception on September 9, 1923, by Mustafa Kemal, a secular nationalist and founder of modern Turkey, the CHP elite has considered itself entitled to govern the country. Having completely severed ties with the Ottoman past, Kemal crafted the state on the strict interpretation of Westernism and secularism. The CHP elite assumed the responsibility of upholding those principles by perpetuating the CHP single-party regime by suppressing any opposition. This state of privilege and entitlement lasted until 1950. That year, the first democratic elections in the history of modern Turkey were held as a prerequisite for receiving funds as part of the Marshall Plan, which the CHP desperately needed given the abysmal state of the economy after World War II despite Turkey’s neutrality.

The opposition, under Adnan Menderes, a conservative who overtly displayed his Muslim identity, won the elections by a landslide, allowing him to form a single-party government — a blow to the CHP elite. In his 10-year tenure, Menderes defied the Kemalist establishment by, among others, reverting the Muslim call to prayer to Arabic, and allowing the education of the Quran in primary school. He declared in 1951 that “Turkey is a Muslim country and will remain so.” Secular CHP’s three electoral defeats against Menderes convinced the CHP elite that democracy is not an option to regain what they believe was theirs and that the erosion of the Kemalist principles can only be halted by force.

In 1960, the Kemalist Turkish armed forces (TAF) stepped in and toppled Menderes, executing him and the two other prominent cabinet members. This launched the tradition of military coups in Turkey, where the TAF assumed the guardianship (praetorian) role of the Kemalist principles, specifically secularism. In the next 50 years, the TAF would “keep the civilians in line” by stepping in three more times, in 1971, 1980 and 1997. It made its presence known to governments through the supreme national security council, in which top generals dictated domestic and foreign policy recommendations to civilian government members. 

Fast forward to 2002, when Erdogan’s ascent to power and the beginning of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) single-party rule in Turkey heralded the impending clash with the military reminiscent of the Menderes era. This time the Kemalist military would lose. Erdogan had long believed that the military’s interpretation of strict secularism, particularly in the 1990s, suppressed the pious masses to which he belonged. He skillfully used Turkey’s European Union accession process to take on the military. He did this by zealously implementing EU guidelines, among which was the “civilianization” of politics requiring the demilitarization of the supreme national security council. In 2004, for the first time since its inception in 1938, a civilian, Mehmet Yigit Alpogan, became the secretary general of the council.

The Turkish military would strike back in April 2007 by issuing a stern warning against the election of Erdogan’s then-comrade, Abdullah Gul, as president. The move backfired, and the AKP won the general election by a landslide that summer, heralding the beginning of total civilian control over the Turkish armed forces. It is this loss of the Kemalist “safety valve” that began to raise alarm bells for the CHP. The abortive coup of July 15, 2016, was probably the oppositions last dimming hope. To its dismay, the popular resistance against the coup resulted in failure, along with the widespread purge of the supporters of Fethullah Gulen — Erdogan’s “public enemy number one” — in the military, judiciary and law enforcement, allowed Erdogan to further consolidate his grip on power. 

The New System

An unexpected glimmer of hope for the opposition in its effort to topple the invincible Erdogan emerged with the introduction of the presidential system in 2017, which replaced the parliamentary system. In the parliamentary system, the main opposition party, the CHP, had no chance of forming a government, mostly due to unfavorable demographic realities. Its numbers consistently hovered around 20%-25%, whereas the AKP doubled that. In the new two-round presidential elections, a candidate is required to obtain at least 50%+1 of the popular vote in order to be elected. If no overall majority is reached, then a runoff is held between the two most popular candidates from the first round.    

The first such election was held in June 2018, where four major parties — the AKP, the CHP, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Good Party — nominated their candidates, with President Erdogan polling highest. With what is now called the People’s Alliance, where the AKP and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) formed an official pact, Erdogan won 52% of the popular vote. However, a win by a slight margin convinced the opposition that in a 50%+1 system, it may have a chance against him. Therefore, in an unprecedented turn in Turkish politics, the opposition began to coalesce around the idea “anybody but Erdogan.”

The opposition formed what is now called the Nation Alliance, where the CHP and the Good Party created an official pact with the HDP and the Felicity Party (SP, Erdogan’s former party) throwing in their unofficial support. The Good Party, with its moderate nationalist ideology, did not want to enter into an official pact with the Kurdish nationalist socialist-leaning HDP, which is the political arm of the outlawed PKK terrorist organization. The prospect of this new style of opposition was first tested in the March 2019 mayoral elections.

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To ensure success, the Nation Alliance nominated only the candidates whose party had the highest chance of winning against the People’s Alliance. This tactic seemed to have worked. For the first time in 30 years, a party with a manifestly leftist and secular worldview and with the support of the rest of the opposition, the CHP, won the mayoral elections in Turkey’s four biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Adana.

However, in the aftermath of this success, the anyone-but-Erdogan alliance began showing signs that it was headed for a catastrophic failure. One of the biggest problems was that the alliance had only one requirement — without any meaningful policy contribution to Turkish politics — for the completely opposite political views, and that was to coexist in the name of toppling Erdogan. The right-wing Turkish nationalist Good Party constituency grew resentful of the de facto alliance with the HDP. Furthermore, the HDP’s claim that “without its some 1 million votes [10-12% of total votes], the anti-Erdogan alliance would not have won the elections in Istanbul” further inflamed the Good Party base, which represented some 7%-8% of voters. This led to the resignation of five Good Party deputies.

Moreover, in order to appeal to conservative constituents, which was necessary to take on Erdogan, the leftist-secular CHP nominated former ultranationalists and conservatives as mayoral and presidential candidates. For instance, the current mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, is listed as affiliated with the CHP, but he used to be a prominent member of the MHP, which is currently in an official alliance with Erdogan. Yavas’ newly surfaced undated video where he called Deniz Gezmis and his friends — the icons of the Turkish leftist movement who were executed in 1972 on charges of communist affiliations — a “bunch of thugs” drew criticism from certain leftists within CHP.

The biggest threat to the alliance appeared to be Muharrem Ince, who unsuccessfully contested the current CHP premier Kemal Kilicdaroglu for the seat of party chairman. He has sternly criticized Kilicdaroglu for being undemocratic and lambasted him for leading the CHP astray from Mustafa Kemal’s interpretation of secularism and nationalism (ulusalcilik) by courting the former conservative candidates and aligning with the Kurdish secessionist HDP. Ince, poised to form his own party, drew criticism from the anti-Erdogan coalition for dividing the much-needed block of votes.

Foreign Entities Against Erdogan  

With the armed forces now under Erdogan’s full command following the July 15 coup, Turkey began to display activism abroad, which once again is perceived by the opposition as part of Erdogan’s powerplay. Since 2016, Turkey has successfully conducted three incursions into Syria, saved the UN-recognized Libyan government from implosion, and defended its maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean against a coalition of countries including Greece, France and the United Arab Emirates.    

The anybody-but-Erdogan coalition has harshly criticized the president’s virtually every foreign policy move. The “What are we doing in …?” phrase has become an iconic expression the anti-Erdogan block used to decry Turkey’s military involvements in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, which pro-Erdogan circles see as a crucial matter of national security.

In the name of weakening Erdogan, the members of the opposition have not shied away from supporting foreign countries and entities that Turkey is known to clash with militarily and politically. For instance, as opposed to Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu does not recognize the PKK’s Syria branch, the YPG, as a terror organization. Whereas Erdogan has expressed his desire to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad, Kilicdaroglu advocated dialogue with him.

Kilicdaroglu believes Turkey has no business in Libya, whereas the government states it is an important move to counter the Greek maritime claims in the East Mediterranean that could cripple Turkey’s ability to navigate in those waters. Moreover, the CHP mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, criticized the government for converting the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque, which led the pro-Erdogan circles accusing Imamoglu of being a “Greek spy.” 

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Despite these appeals, the Turkish opposition has very few prospects to receive meaningful support from abroad. The bygone days when the Western governments were able to wield absolute influence on the Turkish authorities are just that — gone. The inability of the US and EU to dissuade Turkey from dislodging the PKK from northern Syria is a clear sign of a relative weakening of Western influence over Turkey, conversely signaling Erdogan’s ever-growing power. Likewise, last week’s refusal of EU members — Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary and Malta — to adopt the sanctions against Ankara proposed by Greece indicates that Erdogan’s Turkey is much more important to Germany in the post-COVID-19 world than a member state’s declared interests in the Mediterranean. What is more, France was dismayed when President Emmanuel Macron could not convince NATO that Turkey was at fault in the naval incident where Turkish and French frigates dangerously came too close off of Libya in July. Finally, Greeks mourn that Europe has bowed to Erdogan on Hagia Sophia.  

The entitled CHP elite still resents that the country it believes it founded has been taken over by what it sees as a conservative Muslim. What is more disappointing for the CHP is that the Turkish military’s DNA to meddle with domestic politics has been removed, leaving little chance for a coup. It also appears that growing infighting among the members of the anti-Erdogan coalition after the successful 2019 local elections is likely going to affect the opposition’s prospects of taking on Erdogan in 2023.

The impression that, in the name of weakening Erdogan, it would rather collaborate with foreign entities hostile to Turkey will further damage the opposition. Most Turks are wary of this type of political game. Perhaps some sort of cooperation with Erdogan is a must for the Turkish opposition to save itself from extinction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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