We need a new conservative party in Turkey for regime transition

The incumbent authoritarian regime grabs every opportunity to consolidate its worn-out conservative base in order to divert attention from mounting economic crises.

PEOPLE ATTEND an election rally in Turkey. (Reuters) (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE ATTEND an election rally in Turkey. (Reuters)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The nationwide local election in Turkey on March 31 is not just “another” election under an authoritarian regime. This election might open new avenues of electoral contests in Turkish politics, creating prospects for alternative parties to emerge, depending on electoral losses of the incumbent coalition “People’s Alliance.” This election matters not just for Turkish politics, but also will have major implications for Turkey-US relations, and Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Middle East.
The Turkish political system has never been polarized to such an extent as today. The incumbent authoritarian regime grabs every opportunity to consolidate its worn-out conservative base in order to divert attention from mounting economic crises. President Erdogan has repeatedly broadcast video of the Christchurch mosque massacre in his campaign rallies to escalate threat perceptions. The leaders of the pro-Kurdish party are in jail; prominent civil society leaders have been indicted with a lifetime sentence; and the regime employs prosecution as a tool to intimidate opposition candidates in local elections, especially in swing cities.
In the meantime, something is brewing behind closed doors.
There are credible rumors that former PM Davutoglu has accelerated his efforts to establish a new party. In 2016, he was forced to resign amid a smear campaign against him. Former president Gul is also believed to be making preparations for a new party, with two former economy ministers, Ali Babacan and Mehmet Simsek. Whether they will be able to form these parties in the face of possible intimidating backlash by the incumbent government, or whether they will be able to emerge as a viable alternative, is open to dispute. Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: We need a new conservative party for a regime transition in Turkey.
The extant scholarship on regime transition suggests that the threat perception of ruling elite coalition matters for successful and peaceful transitions. As the groups of cronies tied to the incumbent regime would fear to lose their entitlements, they would mobilize around the incumbent regime to avoid such an outcome at any cost. Therefore, the ruling elite coalition must be convinced that they would be better off after a democratic transition, and they can be only convinced by a group of people from similar conservative backgrounds.
The current ruling coalition in Turkey is not as unified, consolidated, or bullet-proof as it looks. That is just a mirage. There are disgruntled members within AKP cadres, together with growing dissent among AKP supporters. However, they are scattered and unable to resolve their collective action problems because of fear of retaliation by the incumbent regime. A new conservative party must emerge to resolve these collective action problems, instill trust among the conservative opposition, and bring them together around a centrist-pragmatic agenda. Without a centralized leadership, the incumbent regime will manage to suppress and discredit any opposition from its ranks.
Can a democratic-socialist alternative play a role for such a democratic transition? I highly doubt it. Transforming CHP, the main opposition party, with an AOC-style democratic-socialist outlook is not a remedy for a democratic transition. First, a redistributive agenda might amplify the risk perception of the incumbent ruling elite, incentivizing them to stick with the current regime. Second, the conservative voter base no longer attributes blame for deteriorating economic conditions to the government, but to foreign meddling. A leftist-populist agenda might find it extremely challenging to take roots, as economic voting does not work anymore in Turkey at the same level it once did.
We need a new conservative party in Turkey, spearheaded by a pragmatic-centrist conservative leadership, to reclaim the center-right again. That is the only way out for steering the country back onto a democratic track.
The writer is a PhD student of political science at the University of Toronto. @semuhi.