Political Détente: Implications for Turkish Politics

President Erdoğan’s potential visit to the CHP headquarters holds greater symbolism compared to Özel’s visit to the AK Party headquarters, indicating the president’s dedication to the process of political softening

Speaking to reporters after last week’s Friday prayer, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented on his meeting with Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairperson Özgür Özel, adding that he intended to visit the CHP headquarters soon: “This is what Türkiye and Turkish politics need. I wish to start a process of political softening in Türkiye by making that visit happen at the earliest convenience. We will take that step.”

President Erdoğan’s potential visit to the CHP headquarters is more symbolic than Özel visiting the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) headquarters – a sign that the president is committed to the softening period. CHP officials have also confirmed that the May 2 meeting at the AK Party headquarters went well and signaled the beginning of a new chapter. Indeed, the CHP chairperson himself stated that the meeting covered everything on the agenda and described it as a milestone in Turkish politics: “We deem it important that the main opposition and the government remain able to exchange views in Türkiye.”

General outlook

What will the period of softening in Turkish politics entail? Obviously, it will change the old political climate, which was powered by strongly worded statements and polarization between the government and the opposition. It will make it possible to open to discussion many issues on Türkiye’s agenda by going beyond long-standing positions. It will also create room for this kind of politics and stakeholders seeking reconciliation. Under the new circumstances, it would not be difficult for the government and the opposition to reach agreements over the economy and the problems of low-income groups – specifically because populism won’t work during political de-escalation.

The critical question, however, remains: Which issues can we discuss anew – and to what extent and how – in this new climate? Where could the parties reach an agreement on the country’s security interests and national identity? Let us recall that the government and the opposition have long been committed to certain positions regarding counterterrorism, foreign policy, the political system and the consolidation of democracy and freedoms. Specifically, they have serious disagreements over the Kurdish question, the Gezi Park arrests, Constitutional Court rulings and the fight against the PKK/YPG.

It is nonetheless important to agree that the beginning of political de-escalation matters as a “process.” Still, there are obvious risks attached to raising expectations excessively. After all, the relevant stakeholders are not new and there is a certain background to where they ended up. Indeed, there could be groups on both sides that are concerned about political softening. Hence, the CHP leadership’s simultaneous emphasis on “negotiations” and “struggle.” Although Özel highlighted the importance of shaking hands and noted that he discussed “everything” with Erdoğan, some of his party’s senior officials and parliamentarians have marched to the Ministry of Education and described the new education model as “obsolete.” They even accused the ministry of “taking Türkiye back (in time) step by step,” “disregarding secularism,” and “trying to make the people forget Mustafa Kemal and his reforms.” Likewise, there is no reason to expect the People’s Alliance to reverse its “policy of struggle” for the sake of defending Turkish interests at home and abroad. Indeed, hardly anyone would be surprised at a ground operation against PKK militants in Iraq in the near future.

New constitution agenda

Let us, then, go back to the original question: What should we expect to happen during the period of softening? We might find opportunities to re-engage Türkiye’s main issues in a climate with less polemicism and accusations. The “new constitution” agenda might create a framework for such engagement. In an election-less situation, it might be possible to exchange views on many different issues including identity and the political system. In this sense, the government might be able to better appreciate the opposition’s concerns as the opposition becomes more aware of the complex and challenging aspects of the nation’s issues.

In other words, we need to manage the process of softening in a realistic manner and with some degree of cautious optimism. Politicians need to be ready for potential crises.

The de-escalation process – at least for now – serves the interests of all political parties. It is a win-win situation. Yet, it remains difficult to find common ground when it comes to the key issues and disrupting the current process would come with a heavy price tag. In the end, unforeseeable crises might fuel even more escalation than before in Turkish politics. Going forward, all things related to the Green Left Party (YSP), informally known as the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party), a successor of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the attitude of CHP’s hardliners, and surprise foreign policy developments will put the softening process to test.