The Cracks in CHP: The Breaking of the Fellowship?

July 5, 2023
by Haşim Tekineş, published on 5 July 2023
The Cracks in CHP: The Breaking of the Fellowship?

Turkey’s main opposition party, CHP, has not yet recovered from the trauma of its recent election defeat. Despite the challenges posed by President Erdogan's extensive access to public resources for campaigning, his complete control over the media, and various election manipulations, it was a notable achievement for Kilicdaroglu to secure 48% of the votes. However, a segment of the opposition holds the view that Kilicdaroglu, who has been leading the party for 13 years, cannot fully realize the CHP’s potential. This discrepancy between expectations and reality is causing instability within the CHP's leadership.

In contrast to Erdogan's aggressive and pragmatic style of politics, Kilicdaroglu has represented a more inclusive and moderate side of Turkish politics. It has strived to extend beyond its traditional secular-nationalist base and reach out to other segments of society. In the 2014 presidential elections, the party even embraced a religious scholar from a well-known conservative family as a presidential candidate. He attempted to improve dialogue with the Kurdish party, and Kilicdaroglu pledged to execute the ECHR decision to release Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish leader.

However, Kilicdaroglu's record is far from perfect. He has constantly failed to exert enough pressure on the government during critical moments or provide a compelling alternative to its policies. He voted in favor of lifting Demirtas's parliamentary immunity, knowing it would lead to his imprisonment. Additionally, despite criticizing Turkey's foreign policy, he supported bills that allowed cross-border military operations.

On the other hand, despite the economic crisis and the government's poor response to twin earthquakes, Kilicdaroglu's CHP fell short of translating public dissatisfaction into political gains in the last elections. While Kilicdaroglu adopted a gentlemanly approach, the party needed a warrior-like figure who could challenge Erdogan's limits and energize the masses. Instead of fighting for every single vote with tireless effort on the ground, Kilicdaroglu relied on social media campaigns to woo voters.

After the defeat, Kilicdaroglu is reluctant to step down, at least not before the local elections in 2024. He sees himself as a "safe harbor" to anchor the party for upcoming elections. While the recent elections were a devastating defeat according to Istanbul's popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, and many others, Kilicdaroglu believes that he has transformed the CHP into a mass party, increasing its vote share from 20 percent to 48 percent by uniting 25 million voters. From his perspective, Kilicdaroglu sees the last ten years as a success story for the CHP's performance. 

However, a faction within the party believes that the CHP could achieve more than what Kilicdaroglu offers. Imamoglu recently called for change, criticizing the opposition’s weakness and failure to provide a credible alternative to the ruling AKP. Imamoglu is seen as a potential candidate for leadership, enjoying support from some prominent figures and the party's grassroots.

The Turkish opposition is now entering a tumultuous period as the CHP decides its leadership and strategy. This decision holds importance for two reasons. Firstly, as the main opposition party, the CHP still has significant potential to shape Turkish politics and contend for power. It can form influential coalitions with other opposition groups, determine the coalition strategy, and shape its ideological orientation. Therefore, the CHP's leadership will play a crucial role in presenting new political challenges to the AKP.

Secondly, the new CHP leader can be an influential actor in the formation of post-Erdogan Turkey. Given Erdogan’s health, age, and longevity of his tenure, it is not far-fetched to assume that the Turkish president will leave the office within the next ten years. During such a traumatic transition, the leader of the main opposition party will undoubtedly wield significant influence.

The gap between expectations and reality continues to shake the CHP, weakening Kilicdaroglu's authority and hierarchy within the party. Critics within opposition media outlets have intensified their scrutiny of Kilicdaroglu, and he faces stronger and younger rivals. However, he remains determined to hold onto his position. Regardless of who assumes the role of the new CHP leader, their influence on Turkish politics in the years to come will be substantial.

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