What lessons can Israel learn from Turkey’s elections?

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

The 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey provide meaningful lessons and insights for supporters of democracy in Israel, in general, and for those in the Israeli opposition who are engaged in political and party renewal.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been running in Turkish national elections for over 20 years, first as founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that challenged the existing political order, subsequently as a prime minister who reshaped the system of government and more recently, as an all-powerful president seeking another term.

Turkish elections have aroused interest in Israel over the years, whether due to Erdogan’s Islamist affiliation that initially prompted speculation about Turkey going the way of Iran or more recently, the impact of his continued hold on power for Israeli-Turkish relations and regional geopolitics.

A new aspect has informed Israeli discourse on Turkey in recent years: concern in Israel’s pro-democracy camp that democratic erosion processes in Turkey are similarly emerging in Israel under Netanyahu’s enduring rule. Seven years ago, the Israeli opposition sounded warnings against “Israel turning into Turkey,” and in 2020, Benny Gantz’s opposition Blue and White party adopted the campaign slogan “It’s Blue and White or Erdogan” (it rhymes in Hebrew).

Since the establishment of the current Netanyahu government and in the face of the legislative processes it is promoting, pro-democracy forces in Israel are increasingly turning to colleagues in Turkey (as well as in Hungary and Poland) to learn about the situation there and to seek tips for safeguarding democracy.

The political renewal that characterized Turkey’s opposition towards the recent election is resonating among Israeli opposition forces, who have an increasing interest in creating fresh, united and renewed political frameworks (see, for example, Labor MK Gilad Kariv’s recent call for unity on the political Left). Relevant insights that can be distilled from the Turkish opposition’s attempt to replace Erdogan touch mainly on issues of alliances and unification, momentum and hope.

Alliances and unifications

In the run-up to the 2023 elections, most Turkish opposition groups joined forces behind a single presidential candidate: the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP, founded by Ataturk), Kemal Kılıcdaroglu. This push to consolidate a united front began ahead of the 2018 presidential elections and bore fruit in the 2019 municipal elections with impressive victories by opposition candidates in major cities.

Ahead of the 2023 presidential elections, six parties from across the political and social spectrum ran a joint campaign, calling for the restoration of democratic order and a return to a parliamentary system of government. Along with Kılıcdaroglu, the heads of the other five parties ran as vice presidential candidates, as did the mayors of Istanbul (Ekrem Imamoglu) and Ankara (Mansur Yavas), who played a key role in the campaign.

The ideologically diverse front performed well during the campaign, although it ultimately failed to live up to expectations. In a sign that may be relevant to Israel’s fragmented politics, the Kurdish ethnic minority in southeastern Turkey provided Kılıcdaroglu with overwhelming support on Election Day, having reached agreements with the opposition front without joining it.

THIS IS an encouraging lesson for the prospects of forging constructive political alliances with Israel’s Arab citizens, even if formal cooperation under one political roof is unlikely.

The joint Turkish presidential campaign conveyed unity and determination and willingness to put differences aside in favor of achieving an overarching national goal. Preliminary agreements among the parties enabled opposition parties to formulate joint political moves vis-a-vis different constituencies in order to maximize their relative advantage on Election Day.

On the other hand, the bloc’s great ideological diversity undermined certainty regarding the policies the opposition would adopt if elected and the identities of political appointments that would follow. This was clearly evident, for example, in the foreign policy field. The opposition bloc included Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s former foreign minister, credited with boosting Turkey’s standing in the Arab and Muslim sphere, as well as Namik Tan, a former Turkish ambassador to Israel and the United States, aligned with pro-Western views.

Which of the two would have set the diplomatic tone had the opposition won? Voters could not know this in advance and the opposition’s attempt to make up for this uncertainty by issuing a comprehensive election platform (unusual in Turkey) only provided a partial response to these concerns.

A seemingly more appropriate model in the Israeli context would be for parties of significantly different ideological stripes to run separately and parties more ideologically aligned to form unions, with a public commitment in advance to form a coalition after the elections.

On the parliamentary front, the bloc’s largest party, CHP, gave up some of its future representation in advance to allow for mergers with several smaller parties. The move was criticized in retrospect when election results indicated that the mergers had failed to increase the CHP’s power and the party was nonetheless forced to transfer seats to ideologically distant parties that had garnered negligible voter support.

When forming political consolidations, one must therefore consider not only how to maximize profits on Election Day, but also how to enable effective parliamentary action throughout a future term. In addition, the opposition’s reliance on key figures (mayors) who were designated for senior positions in the event of victory but not for parliament membership in case of defeat, risked a future weakening of their various factions.

The lesson for Israel is that entry into national politics must be wholeheartedly sincere, including the willingness to give up current positions to make way for opposition parliamentary activity.

Momentum and hope

Election Day in Turkey generated much optimism among the camp of change, especially as elections drew nearer. This was no small matter, given the repeated disappointments this camp has suffered in recent years and a sense of helplessness generated by Erdogan’s prolonged rule. This is an important lesson about the relative ease of inspiring hope and leveraging a thirst for change when the public feels that its leaders are acting responsibly and jointly to advance the bloc’s common interest.

THE FORMATION of a collective opposition alliance, the positive campaign it led, the unifying national discourse, the willingness to break social taboos and legitimize ethnic and religious minorities all harnessed the opposition’s supporters and conveyed a sense that change was possible. This, in turn, increased voter turnout and motivated voters to volunteer for polling station supervision – a central pillar of the opposition’s Election Day strategy.

The global dimension introduced by the opposition into the election campaign was also important, stressing that victory would position Turkey as a model for like-minded voters in other countries. The opposition also felt responsible in light of the global attention to its efforts.

The positive momentum and favorable polls ultimately dazzled and generated over-optimism, which may have led to missed electoral trends in the periphery and away from social networks, and to a lack of sufficiently appropriate responses for them in the campaign. This phenomenon has occurred in the past both in Israel and in other Western countries, requiring attention in the future.

The role played by mayors in the campaign indicated the power of the municipal arena. Given repeated losses by the opposition’s national leadership (such as those Kılıcdaroglu himself experienced since being elected head of his party, in 2010), the municipal leadership kept producing stories of success. Imamoglu and Yavas were regarded as winners, having cracked the code for defeating Erdogan’s candidates, in 2019.

Serving as mayors, they were also portrayed as leaders mindful of their residents’ daily needs and their presence in the campaign added a fresh spirit to a somewhat outdated party leadership. Both mayors also played a major role on election night. They appeared in public together every few hours to update on the state of affairs and try to uplift voter morale. This is relevant in the Israeli context ahead of the upcoming municipal elections in October 2023.

The extent to which the pro-democracy camp is successful in creating a compelling narrative of success and victory in these elections and producing young and promising leaders will also be particularly significant ahead of the next Knesset elections, towards which new political frameworks may take shape.

Since the advent of democratic protests in Israel, in January 2023, a growing Israeli openness has developed to international partnerships, to learn from the experiences of like-minded allies in other countries and to share insights from Israel with others. This is a welcome trend generating hope that the voices emerging from Turkey’s recent elections will indeed resonate in Israel and help bring about change.

This article is from “the Jerusalem Post“, May 23th, 2023.

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