CHP keeps avoiding AKP traps ahead of referendum

CHP keeps avoiding AKP traps ahead of referendum

The first step of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that foiled a ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) plan was to not take its amendments draft to the Constitutional Court. 

The changes to be voted on April 16 envisage shifting Turkey to an executive presidential system, as demanded by President Tayyip Erdoğan, and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has admitted that the government’s initial plan assumed that the CHP would take the change to the Constitutional Court. That would have fed AK Parti propaganda that the main opposition had “no trust in the people” and instead relied on the courts. “It’s good that they have seen a better way,” Yıldırım said later.

A second step came when CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said his party would not base its “No” campaign on Erdoğan personally but rather against the shift away from a parliamentary system, claiming it would only lead to “one-man-rule” without checks and balances. The AK Parti had assumed that the CHP would campaign hitting at Erdoğan as a strongman, so they could capitalize on Erdoğan’s popularity among at least half of the voters. In a recent party meeting, Kılıçdaroğlu asked his deputies and party executives not to use humiliating or mocking language against Erdoğan, as the problem is with the system he wants to introduce rather than himself.

There have been other minor examples along the way, such as the CHP’s criticism of the European Union regarding the Greek Cypriot antagonism in the talks with the Turkish Cypriots, instead of slamming the government over its failed Cyprus policy. It also did not hit hard over the hoisting of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flag in Ankara during KRG President Masoud Barzani’s talks last week; the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the government’s partner in the “yes” campaign, jumped in to do that instead.

If the CHP had fallen into these traps, the AK Parti could have exploited the situation to denounce it and all “yes” campaigners as working against Turkey’s national interests.

A third big feint came with the CHP’s stance over a German municipality’s rejection of a request by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ to organize a rally for the “Yes” campaign, followed by a statement from Vienna that Erdoğan would also not be welcome to do the same in Austria. The AK Parti turned this into a litmus test on “standing up for a national cause.” But again the CHP made a surprise move: Former party chair Deniz Baykal announced that he had canceled a trip to Germany to address Turkish communities there and campaign for a “No” vote. The Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also criticized Germany for not allowing free speech for all opinions, noting that it already suffers from such restrictions.

The CHP’s stance on the row with Germany frustrated another potential opportunity for the AK Parti to say the opposition is acting together with foreign powers. The government particularly accuses Germany of harboring both the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and members of the secret network of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S. and accused of being behind the foiled coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

On March 6, key AK Parti figures started to complain about the CHP’s “positive campaign.” Naci Bostancı, a parliamentary spokesman for the party, claimed on private broadcaster CNN Türk that “if this [positive language] was the CHP’s real language, it would not have promoted it so much.” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli, meanwhile, was more clear when he said he “could not even believe this was the CHP,” perhaps indirectly admitting that the CHP’s strategy to avoid antagonism with the AK Parti has been successful so far in avoiding campaign traps.

In previous years, ruling AK Parti politicians used to accuse the CHP of “reading intentions” instead of accepting what the government said at face value. Perhaps it is now the AK Parti’s turn to “read intentions.”