A stronger CHP after its congress? Or…

A stronger CHP after its congress? Or…

Turkey’s social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) held its first congress since the Nov. 1, 2015 election disappointment on Jan. 16-17 in Ankara. 

Unusually, no candidate challenged CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu at the congress. Two possible candidates withdrew ahead of the congress and another was unable to gather enough support from delegates. 

It was a rather dull congress. Out of over 1,200 delegates, fewer than 250 used invalid votes to express their discontent with Kılıçdaroğlu, and even that was less than half the number of votes Kılıçdaroğlu’s rival Muharrem İnce attracted in last year’s party congress.

The only excitement this year was an in-house maneuver to remove Secretary General Gürsel Tekin and his close associates from the CHP’s executive bodies. The delegates crossed out the names of Tekin and his associates, including a number of deputy chairmen, and did not allow them to get elected to the CHP’s 60-seat Party Assembly (PA), from which a Central Decision Board (MYK) of around 10 members will be named by Kılıçdaroğlu.

That has been interpreted in Ankara political backstage as the CHP grassroots saving Kılıçdaroğlu for now but punishing his close aides for the poor election results: The CHP again struggled to get more than a quarter of the votes in November, against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) which won around half.
As a result of the latest party congress maneuver, Kılıçdaroğlu will have to work with a PA quite different from the one he wanted. “At least that is a change,” you might say. Indeed, one of the main problems for Turkish democracy is the inability of opposition parties to shake themselves up and perform strongly against the AK Parti in parliament.

However, not all changes are for the good. Some of the names who managed to tear up Kılıçdaroğlu’s list and get into the PA are names with strong grassroots support of their own, names from the leftist-social democratic wing of the party. But others have seemingly been elected because they belong to certain pressure groups within the CHP. 

There are mainly two such groups: One is made up of the municipalities headed by the CHP. The other is made up of Alevis, who highlight their religious identity as a counterbalance to the AK Parti’s Sunni identity (not all Alevis vote for the CHP, but the party does contain a small, influential, well-organized group of Alevi members). 

The two groups have something in common. Alevis often complain that it has become harder for them to find government jobs under AK Parti rule, which is heading into its 14th year. There are also no permanent or stable jobs in Turkey’s schizophrenically dynamic construction sector. This pushes Alevis to look for jobs in CHP municipalities, and subsequently working for CHP local branches in those constituencies. 

This outlook has started to bring forward one name as a power maker within the CHP: Battal İlgezdi, the mayor of the Ataşehir district on Istanbul’s Asian side, a center for the booming construction sector and skyrocketing land prices. His wife, Özlem İlgezdi, was elected as an MP in the November election and she has now been elected as a member of the CHP’s PA, against the will of Kılıçdaroğlu. The case is similar to the rise of Mustafa Sarıgül, the former mayor of Şişli on Istanbul’s European side, where most financial headquarters in the city are located. It took a long time for the CHP to pacify Sarıgül, who carries all kinds of baggage as corruption allegations swirl around him. According to CHP sources, İlgezdi may be a second Sarıgül, this time with a leftist-Alevi flavor rather than a populist-Sunni flavor.

It is true that the CHP’s delegates have changed Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidate list, but it seems they do not have any new program or political target - other than being elected to the PA and being influential in the party’s politics.

Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, has promised to hold another congress within six months to provide a new vision for the CHP. He named that vision in his congress speech as endorsing “liberal democracy.” But it may not be so easy for him to design a new program for Turkey’s oldest party, when the PA is not in line with his perspective. The only way for him to fulfill his targets may be to form an MYK small in number and loyal to him, in order to come up with a program that could really change the CHP’s perspective. Such a change demands breaking beyond the 25-26 percent band and passing the psychological threshold of 30 percent, which would allow the CHP to become an influential opposition - if not a government partner.