Winds of change blowing through Turkey’s social democrats
It was clear that the results of Turkey’s June 24 elections would bring about a new in-house dynamism to the Republican People’s Party (CHP), after Muharrem İnce - a former physics teacher who ran for the presidency against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - garnered 30.6 percent of votes in his 52-day campaign.
İnce’s votes were seven percentage points higher than the CHP’s votes in the parliamentary polls, as he received the support of more than 15 million voters. In his first statement after the election, he vowed to continue working to increase his supporters to 30 million and said he would visit all 81 provinces in the country in order to thank all his voters.
Immediately after his indirect challenge to CHP chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, İnce’s supporters kicked off a kind of campaign for a leadership change in the social democratic party. However, the wave that İnce has created within the party has not been positively responded to by Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu has urgently convened a CHP Party Assembly to impose disciplinary sanctions on some party members including Gürsel Erol, the CHP’s first lawmaker to be elected from the Eastern Anatolian province of Elazığ in four decades.
A week after the election, Kılıçdaroğlu and İnce met late on July 2, during which the latter made a number of proposals to the CHP chairman. İnce’s not-so-diplomatic proposal includes Kılıçdaroğlu stepping down from his post and becoming “honorary leader” of the party. He also said Kılıçdaroğlu could lead the CHP parliamentary group as İnce cannot do so anymore because he is no longer a member of parliament.
İnce has to get the support of at least 634 CHP delegates in order to hold the convention. He did run against Kılıçdaroğlu in two previous conventions but failed to topple him, despite receiving considerable support from delegates.
It is obvious that the current CHP leadership does not see a reason why Kılıçdaroğlu should resign. He was elected as CHP head in 2010 after his predecessor, Deniz Baykal, had to resign due to leak of a video recording showing him in flagrante delicto with a former female CHP lawmaker.
Under Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP has been able to secure its position as Turkey’s main opposition party with around 25 percent of the votes in consecutive polls, but it has failed to increase beyond that level.
Kılıçdaroğlu has long been criticized for trying to open the CHP to center-right and conservative segments of society by offering positions to non-CHP figures. His decision to align with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the 2014 presidential elections and nominating an effectively unknown intellectual, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, as president is still regarded as one the worst moves during his chairmanship.
Even ahead of the most recent June 24 election, Kılıçdaroğlu’s preference for the party’s presidential candidate is believed to have been former President Abdullah Gül, the founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) back in 2001 with Erdoğan. İnce was nominated as the party’s candidate after İYİ (Good) Party chair Meral Akşener opposed appointing a joint opposition candidate.
Still, Kılıçdaroğlu has successfully managed to transform the CHP from a staunchly Kemalist line to a more liberal stance, especially with regards to how it views secularism. He has also been able to democratize the CHP by reforming internal regulations and giving greater voice to the grassroots in selecting parliamentary representatives.
Thanks to his leadership, the CHP has become more vocal on issues concerning democracy and human rights, especially in the last two years under the ongoing state of emergency. His historic “justice march” from Ankara to Istanbul is still fresh in the memory, although it did not result in the release of Istanbul deputy Enis Berberoğlu. Berberoğlu is, by the way, still in jail despite the fact he was re-elected on June 24 and therefore should enjoy parliamentary immunity.
However, a large portion of politics is about polls and election victories. It will therefore be difficult for Kılıçdaroğlu to defend his position against İnce, who promises election victories to the CHP grassroots starting with the upcoming local elections slated for March 2019.