People say that politics is a marathon. Looking at the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) performance, however, it feels like a sprint. Over the past years, the magnitude of transformation promoted a sense of the extraordinary in Turkey, as fierce competition between the various players made mobilization a key component of Turkish politics. Having been unable to win elections since the 1990s, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has felt compelled to appeal to Western governments for help against the AK Party. Ahead of the 2019 elections, the CHP chairman appears to have made a firm commitment to complaining in the West about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In a recent interview with the German magazine Focus, CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu nearly told the German public that neither their lives nor property are safe in Turkey. He did, however, pledge to "unite all pro-democracy forces and remove Erdoğan from power" in the 2019 elections. It does not take a genius to figure out that European leaders, who openly did not support the April 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey, would be receptive to the main opposition leader's message about removing Erdoğan. And we already know that certain people at home and abroad are willing to resort to anti-democratic methods to end Erdoğan's rule.
The people who want to get rid of Erdoğan through elections hope that they can build a grand coalition capable of winning a simple majority in the 2019 elections. At this time, their strategy focuses on two things: One, to consolidate the 48 percent of voters who opposed the constitutional referendum in April by fueling anti-Erdoğan sentiment and two, find a reasonable candidate who can lure away part of the remaining 51 percent. For the time being, it would appear that their campaign will revolve around alleged interventions in people's life styles and regime change. Needless to say, their target audience will be young people and women. Incidents of symbolic value such as attacks against women with miniskirts and shorts and a bust of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk could prove useful for those who seek to fuel fears of regime change. However, the AK Party could easily take measures against an effort by the opposition to revive the decade-old secularism debate.
There are other challenges, however, that the AK Party faces in its efforts to restructure public institutions and remain in sync with changes among voters. First, the AK Party needs to continue its partnership with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which rests on the values of nationalism, while also protecting its own interests. Needless to say, one of the most attractive targets for those seeking to remove Erdoğan from power will be the AK Party's cooperation with the MHP, which is why MHP Chairman Devlet Bahçeli's support for the continued state of emergency and the AK Party's foreign policy initiatives must be secured. If Meral Akşener, a former MHP member, ends up forming her own party, Bahçeli will presumably face the charge of complicity with the AK Party more often. Under the circumstances, both the AK Party and MHP should be expected to try and continue their partnership while maintaining their unique identities as distinct parties. However, it is important to note that criticism of the AK Party from within the MHP has certain negative effects on the ruling party. Moving forward, tensions are likely to continue around the appointment of public officials and political developments.
The second challenge facing the AK Party relates to the possibility that former officeholders could turn into an opposition faction within the party. By claiming that Islamists are being forced out of the party or expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, certain people could attempt to create cracks within the AK Party.
The AK Party's most valuable asset in its efforts to keep these two challenges under control was Erdoğan's return to the party as chairman. Over the years, Erdoğan has been able to become the single most successful politician in the country's history by building coalitions, keeping his party together during shake-ups and furthering an agenda beyond everyday politics. Simply put, those who tell themselves that Erdoğan is afraid of failing to win a simple majority in 2019 are really trying to mask the fact that they cannot possibly win against him.