This isn't the first time these two parties attempted this kind of cooperation. In this spring's local elections the MHP and CHP coordinated by landing on a consensus candidate to take on the thoroughly corrupt Melih Gokcek in Ankara. Gokcek's mastery of patronage and populism has made him nearly invincible here. Despite the fact that he's clearly made hundreds of millions in graft and his city services are abysmal, he's developed an electoral base that no other individual or party can even begin to match. The consensus candidate in that contest was the mayor of Beypazari, Mansur Yavas (an outlying district in the Ankara municipality). Coincidentally, he floated his name a few weeks ago as an invisible primary candidate for the presidency. Until the 2014 election, he was a member of the neo-fascist MHP, though for the mayoral election he ran under the six arrows of the CHP banner. Pretty simple strategy they took: grab a fascist, slap a Kemalist label on him, hope they can bank on CHP brand loyalty in that corner of the electorate and that enough nationalist voters are willing to accept the compromise. It nearly worked. While there were widespread accusations of fraud, and an incident where a cat apparently caused a blackout disrupting the counting of ballots, the CHP lost by a slim margin. But still, the Ankara mayoral election gave both parties a glimmer of hope, yet showed just how touchy this triangulation on consensus candidates between these two parties can be.
That touchiness goes double for the presidential election. You honestly can't fault the opposition parties too much for this odd behavior and ultimate compromise. Despite them sharing a lot in terms of ideology (xenophobia, economic statism, hyper-nationalism, and a religious attachment to Ataturk), there's a lot working against effective cooperation between the MHP and CHP. Chief amongst those is the fact they hate each other in nearly absolute terms. There's literally been too much blood spilled between these two camps over the years, particularly in the time preceding the 1980 coup. That kind of hatred just doesn't evaporate in a few decades as their political identities were literally forged in that conflict and some rather important ethnic-religious dynamics that have been at play between these parties for years.
But more important than those factors, is that all of this is a rather weird learning process for the parties and electorate. There's a real paradox at play here: How can Turkey popularly select a constitutionally non-partisan office, whose historical purpose has been to protect the interests of the state elite from the people themselves? Compounding this paradox is the stark reality that Turkey has been wrestling with a changing of its state elite. While I clearly don't have the answer to this, I do know this is a highly consequential power play at a time of heightened social and political tensions.
The stakes are high as there is considerable ambiguity in the constitutional and legal structures defining presidential powers. Up until the presidency of Abdullah Gul, presidents were always representative of the Kemalist establishment and exercised their powers sparingly with deference to the bureaucratic-military elite. President Gul, despite the hoopla during his election has also exercised restraint, though his deference has been more towards the AKP and Erdogan. However, as several Turkish professors of politics and law have explained to me in my conversations over the past few weeks here in Ankara, there is great potential for presidential power to grow because throughout the constitution (and supporting law), the president is referred to as head of state, but doesn't have his powers neatly defined. Given these ambiguities, there's no doubt that Erdogan will push those potential powers beyond the pale resulting in de facto constitutional changes that will surely bring more conflict.
The sad part of the constitutional struggle is that there's widespread consensus that the present constitution, particularly the division of executive authority, is in desperate need of change. But there's absolutely no trust between the parties to even begin a productive conversation. Until there is some semblance of consensus, Turkey will have to settle for these strange fits and starts of constitutional evolution. As for the election of 2014, it is anyone's guess how the electorate will respond to the various candidates and how that power will be exercised by the eventual winner. For me, I just find it fascinating that despite the stark differences between our systems, there are some marked similarities in the invisible primaries in both nations. This undoubtedly speaks to the explanatory power the underlies our understanding of the invisible primary.