Should Erdoğan be afraid of Kılıçdaroğlu?

Should Erdoğan be afraid of Kılıçdaroğlu?

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu claimed on Aug. 27 that President Tayyip Erdoğan is “afraid” of him. In an interview with AFP, Kılıçdaroğlu vowed that he and his party would not be deterred by pressure from Erdoğan.

Should Erdoğan be afraid of Kılıçdaroğlu?

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, because there is a solid 25 percent of Turkish voters who would cast votes for the CHP even though they may not necessarily think it is the best party to represent their interests or political views. A significant portion of citizens have been casting their votes for the CHP in order to back a secular, modernist and Western-oriented counterbalance to the conservative, pious and West-sceptic political atmosphere under the rule of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) since 2002. 

Up to now, whatever Erdoğan and the AK Parti have tried to lure those voters, they have not been able to melt or break that 25 percent core. As long as that core stands firm, with or without the CHP, a cross-the-board control over society will not be easy to maintain. For Erdoğan there is a danger that the CHP has a solid backing that could grow if motivated by the correct strategy.

Another reason why he could be afraid of Kılıçdaroğlu may be the CHP leader’s personal potential to motivate people through spontaneous and simple tactics, as in the case of the “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul that he started on June 15, a day after CHP deputy Enis Berberoğlu was sentenced to 25 years in jail. Forbidding the use of CHP symbols and slogans during the march, Kılıçdaroğlu managed to attract people from other political views and draw attention to the problem of justice in Turkey, even finding echoes in the AK Parti. Kılıçdaroğlu is currently heading a four-day “Justice Congress” in the western province of Çanakkale, trying to adopt the same logic.

But on the other hand, Erdoğan should not be afraid of Kılıçdaroğlu, mainly because of the current administration within the CHP and the way it operates.

The Justice March and the Justice Congress are attempts from Kılıçdaroğlu to shake up and move the party to a new dimension to expand from its 25 percent base. But there is no indication that these moves are parts of a new grand strategy. 

Like Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu also recently called on women and young people to play a more active role in politics. But whereas Erdoğan instructed local organizations to give responsible positions to young people and women, Kılıçdaroğlu told them to make their own way up the ranks. “Don’t expect any help from anyone,” he said.

This makes a huge difference. Erdoğan’s instructions have a binding effect on the AK Parti organization, so we probably will now see more women and young people in the party’s ranks following the 2018 spring congress. Kılıçdaroğlu’s words may also have an effect on the CHP organization, but he made no such instruction.

Indeed, heads of the various executive branches of the CHP have no obvious intention to leave their chairs to let new and dynamic people enter the party ranks. According to reliable information from within the CHP, even on the night of June 14 (when an emergency meeting was going on regarding the jailing of Berberoğlu) many on the party’s executive board objected to the Justice March, claiming the party was “not ready for such an action” mentally and physically. Kılıçdaroğlu said he would march, regardless of whether they joined him, and he was proven right. The party’s grassroots supporters and the non-CHP opponents of the AK Parti were ready. 

What’s more, recent gaffs from the executive have been disappointing many CHP supporters. The most recent one was a statement by party spokesman Bülent Tezcan. On Aug. 25, Tezcan claimed that the fugitive Adil Öksüz, alleged to have played a leading role in the defeated July 2016 military coup attempt, has been travelling freely across the country on airways tickets under his name. Öksüz is allegedly a high-ranking official of the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the coup attempt. Tezcan announced his apparently explosive finding in a press conference as evidence for the claim that the coup attempt was a “controlled” one by Erdoğan. But it turned out that Tezcan did not double-check this information and the individual in question was another Adil Öksüz - a grocer in the western province of Muğla who had been travelling for family purposes.

Because Kılıçdaroğlu has not yet announced his candidacy for the presidential elections in 2019 against Erdoğan, (unlike Meral Akşener, the to-be-leader of a new party on the right), a number of members of CHP executive bodies have started lobbying to become a possible candidate - or at least a candidate to become mayor of one of the CHP’s stronghold cities. Many of them are keen to bypass Kılıçdaroğlu’s rule that all candidates should go and work in the field to cultivate grassroots support to become a candidate for a parliamentary seat. That is why they are putting pressure on Kılıçdaroğlu to postpone the spring 2018 congress for another year, in the hope of securing their positions without needing to put in work in the field.

The CHP also has a systemic problem in acknowledging the systemic change narrowly approved in the April 16 referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system. As a result of that change, there will be no prime minister’s position after 2019 and the president will chair the cabinet. Kılıçdaroğlu still says he believes in a non-partisan presidential model, but the constitution has already changed and in order to make another change he has to find a way to dominate in parliament

Ultimately, with an administrative cadre and mentality like this in the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu faces an uphill struggle in expanding the party beyond the 25 percent trap. Erdoğan has no reason to be afraid of Kılıçdaroğlu so long as the CHP leadership resists any changes and continues with no strategy.