Selcuk Ozdag was on his way to Friday prayers when he was met at his front gate by a group of men brandishing wooden sticks and a gun. The former ruling party MP, now a senior official in a newly formed breakaway party, was severely beaten, suffering a broken arm and a head injury that needed 17 stitches.
Ozdag suspects the perpetrators of the attack last month had links to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rightwing coalition partners — the Nationalist Movement party (MHP) — with whom he had verbally sparred in the days before the assault.
The MHP has denied that claim. But the 62-year-old Ozdag says Turkey’s ruling alliance is running scared of his new political grouping, which is targeting disillusioned Erdogan supporters. “Today’s government is desperate,” he told the Financial Times. “These people are frightened of democracy, of transparency, of being held to account.”
The violence against Ozdag is a visceral example of the challenges faced by Turkey’s two newest opposition groupings one year on from their formation after a chasm opened up in Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).
Ozdag is deputy head of the rightwing conservative Gelecek (Future) party founded in December 2019 by the president’s former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu as the AKP suffered an unprecedented split in its ranks.
A second breakaway movement, the Deva (Remedy) party, was set up by Erdogan’s former economy guru, Ali Babacan, in March last year with the aim of winning over a broad coalition of voters from left and right.
When the two parties launched, analysts argued that they held the potential to pose a threat to the Turkish president, who has ruled for almost two decades but whose AKP has suffered an erosion of support since its 2011 electoral peak.
One year on, neither has reached the level of popularity some ruling party officials feared, with both parties polling at an average of 2 or 3 per cent.
“What they’re doing they’re doing against impossible odds,” said Selim Sazak, a visiting researcher at Ankara’s Bilkent University. “It’s really difficult to campaign and reach voters when people ambush you and beat you up.”
The two young parties — both of which will qualify in the coming months to take part in elections — have undoubtedly riled the Turkish president, who has sought a plethora of ways to thwart his former allies.
Officials from Davutoglu’s Gelecek party say would-be recruits, many of whom come from the AKP ranks, have been threatened with losing government jobs or business contracts if they jump ship. Last year, a university established by the former prime minister was shut down by presidential decree.
Mehmet Emin Ekmen, a vice-president of Babacan’s Deva party, said there was a news blackout about the group in the pro-government media and among ruling party politicians. “They talk as if there is no party called Deva and no person called Ali Babacan,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that have come with it have presented an unexpected hurdle for parties that want to use on-the-ground campaigning to bypass the media embargo. Another issue is financing. “All of us are paying our own expenses,” said Kani Torun, the Gelecek party secretary-general.
Analysts are divided on the parties’ prospects. Sazak believes that Davutoglu — who has surprised some observers with his aggressive verbal attacks on Erdogan — poses the bigger threat to his former ally. “Despite the buzz about Babacan, his party seems to have fizzled,” Sazak said. “It’s Davutoglu who is making strides. Will he get 10-15 per cent? Probably not. But he could get a solid 5 per cent,” he said. “That could make him a kingmaker.”
Ozer Sencar, head of the Metropoll polling agency, takes the opposite view. Turkey’s economic woes make Babacan — who ran the Turkish economy during a time of high growth and rising prosperity — a more plausible electoral threat, he said, arguing that he has the potential to win a broad spectrum of votes.
But Sencar believes that the cautious, mild-mannered former minister needs to embrace the public’s desire for a strong leader and reflect more on his own mistakes during his many years in the AKP. “He needs to do some self criticism in front of the public, to confess his sins,” Sencar said.
Officials from both parties argue that current polling does not reflect their full potential. Ekmen estimates that around 50 per cent of the country is still “not aware” of the Deva party’s existence. Increasing that figure “will take time,” he said.
Even small numbers of defections among AKP voters at the next election, scheduled for 2023, could create a headache for Erdogan, who must obtain at least 50 per cent of the vote. He won a 2018 contest with 52.6 per cent, and polls suggest there is a growing segment of wavering AKP voters.
That is why the two young parties serve an important role in the broader opposition, according to Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of the IstanPol think-tank. “It’s not easy for a conservative voter to vote for the [secularist, left-leaning] CHP but they can vote for Babacan or Davutoglu because they are the children of their own neighbourhood,” she said. She added that their emergence had emboldened other Erdogan critics to speak out.
Ozdag, who is still recovering from the assault, said he and his party would not be deterred by the challenges they face. “There’s an expression in Turkish: No matter how high the mountain, the path will lead over the summit,” he said. “Despite all the obstacles, all the attacks, we will carry on.”
Additional reporting by Funja Guler in Ankara