CHP is shooting itself in the foot
Some have been wondering what stopped Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of Turkey’s social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), from challenging the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) to an early election on the night of the recent constitutional referendum, perhaps launching a tour of all the cities that voted “No” to President Tayyip Erdoğan’s bid to consolidate all executive power.
Erdoğan’s win on April 16 was certainly not a landslide. The “Yes” side prevailed with 51.4 percent of the votes, but not without strong objections. The Supreme Election Board (YSK) controversially changed the rules of casting ballots while voting was already underway, and without doubt the CHP had to question it on legal grounds.
It did that, but it focused only on the legal objection point, ignoring the political potential of what happened. The CHP’s vote share has been floating around 25 percent for the last few elections. Under former CHP head Deniz Baykal it was around 21, and Kılıçdaroğlu only managed to raise this average by around 4 percentage points.
But prior to the April 16 referendum, the CHP head was the only opposition leader able to campaign actively for “No.”
The co-chairs of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (CHP), Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, are currently in jail under state of emergency conditions. Thousands of their local party officials are also removed from their positions or in jail, preventing them from carrying out a proper “No” campaign.
In ordinary times, the HDP’s voters make up around 10 percent of voters in Turkey. What’s more, in ordinary times the Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) voters (around 11 percent) would not have divided between “Yes” and “No.” But post-referendum surveys showed that some 70 percent of MHP voters did not obey the call of MHP head Devlet Bahçeli to vote “Yes” to Erdoğan’s proposed new government system. The Felicity Party (SP), which has an Islamic-conservative background and around 2.5 percent of the vote, also objected to Erdoğan’s presidential system.
But this still does not add up to 48.6 percent. That means the campaign mostly lead by Kılıçdaroğlu and the CHP managed to attract voters beyond the party’s traditional zone of influence. Despite losing, morale was therefore quite high on the “No” side, as it was clear that one in every two people on the street were willing to declare - despite difficult circumstances - that they were against Erdoğan’s executive presidential system.
It seemed that there was a new potential ready for the CHP to explore after the referendum. But instead the party started to fight within itself.
Former chairman Baykal opened up the subject of the 2019 presidential election, which indicated that Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempts to get the referendum cancelled were little more than a desperate effort. Baykal also said it should be the CHP head that should personally challenge Erdoğan in 2019, instead of presenting a non-party candidate, (like Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu in 2014), in a bid to attract non-party votes. Baykal’s suggestion is perhaps a sound one, but the CHP grassroots - who were already expecting a more active stance from Kılıçdaroğlu to keep the enthusiasm of “No” voters high - started to question the former CHP head’s timing. There are more than two years to go until 2019, and there are a number of burning issues that have to be raised by the CHP, from people’s economic difficulties to the problem of Syria-origin terrorism.
In what could have been considered the cherry on the top of the cake for Erdoğan, CHP spokesperson Selin Sayek Böke suggested that the party could even consider abandoning parliament, responding to a question in a press conference. Böke’s words were immediately denied and “corrected” by another senior CHP figure, and this debate resulted in her resignation as spokesperson. Then a long-time party dissident, Fikri Sağlar - who Kılıçdaroğlu had re-admitted to the party’s executive committee despite objections from others - accused Kılıçdaroğlu of running a “one-man show” within the party. That echoed language used by the CHP against Erdoğan, and also used by Erdoğan against Kılıçdaroğlu, and the result is that Sağlar was also removed from the party’s executive body. Meanwhile, Baykal is still pushing Kılıçdaroğlu to call a snap congress, with the 2019 presidential election in mind.
The CHP’s voters are watching this inner turmoil, which is not likely to dissipate any time soon, with great disappointment. They are hoping that the blame game within the party - which prides itself as a guardian of the secular, democratic state of law, and which practically established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk - is not an attempt to commit suicide, but instead simply another example of the CHP shooting itself in the foot.