What will Kılıçdaroğlu do against Erdoğan?

What will Kılıçdaroğlu do against Erdoğan?

President Tayyip Erdoğan effectively started his campaign for re-election in November 2019 with a series of speeches on Aug. 7-9 in the Black Sea cities of Rize, Trabzon and Giresun.

From his speeches, it can be understood that he is considering his campaign strategy in three phases:

* Restructuring the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti): The first thing that Erdoğan did after the April 16 constitutional referendum, which shifted Turkey to an executive presidential system, was to go for an emergency congress on May 21. At that congress he was re-elected as the chairman of the party that he co-founded in 2001, and on Aug. 14 the AK Parti will celebrate its 16th anniversary. 

In his May congress speech Erdoğan warned about “material fatigue” within the party, as well as “professional deformation” among some officials who have served long terms. In his recent Black Sea speeches, Erdoğan again stressed that he remained resolute in his warnings, despite the risk of internal reactions. He said he wanted to make some radical changes in the party organization from top to bottom. “If we cannot do this, it will be very difficult to win the elections,” he said. This phase will be completed with a congress in the spring months of 2018.

* Municipal elections: During his Black Sea tour, Erdoğan said a number of times that the first test case of the new structure of the AK Parti would be the municipal elections due to take place by the end of March 2019. (There has been speculation that Erdoğan may want to renew the parliamentary group as soon as possible and could call for a snap election in 2018, but he himself previously denied this and party spokesman Mahir Ünal also ruled it out on Aug. 9.) 

Erdoğan places major importance on all municipal elections. One of the reasons for this is that during the 1990s he served as mayor of Istanbul, before later becoming prime minister and then president. However, in the April referendum a majority of voters in all major cities said “No” to Erdoğan seizing all executive power - including İstanbul and Ankara where AK Parti mayors are currently in office. If the AK Parti loses ground in the next municipal elections - and especially if it loses one of those cities - it would be a big blow ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held six months later in 2019.

* The presidential and parliamentary elections: The AK Parti won the November 2015 general election with 49.5 percent of the vote in a landslide win. But 49.5 percent would still not be enough for Erdoğan, as the constitutional changes mean that he now needs 50 percent-plus-1 vote in both parliamentary and presidential elections. The “Yes” votes in the referendum won with 51.4 percent, but not all of those were AK Parti votes. Erdoğan is therefore likely to try to attract nationalist, conservative and Islamist votes other than his vote base, and perhaps will need to form a right-wing “front” with parties like the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Greater Unity Party (BBP). Perhaps also he will try to woo the small Islamic-conservative Saadet Party, which voted “No” in the referendum against Erdoğan.

Meanwhile, attention is also focused on forming a “front” in main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) circles. Indeed, the Saadet Party is also a target for CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. 

Kılıçdaroğlu managed to raise his political profile beyond the CHP’s vote base with his “Justice March” from Ankara to Istanbul between June 15 and July 9, started after CHP deputy Enis Berberoğlu was sentenced to 25 years in jail for handing news material to a newspaper about National Intelligence Agency (MİT) assistance to rebel groups in Syria. The march attracted political groups across a wide spectrum who shared a common base of saying “No” in the referendum - from the Saadet Party on the right to the minor Communist Party as well as the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Kılıçdaroğlu is now preparing for a “Justice Congress,” which he has announced will take place from Aug 26 to Aug. 30 in the western town of Çanakkale, where he hopes to unite the “No” front again. CHP officials say there will be no party flags, symbols or slogans at the congress, as was the case during the Justice March.

But unlike Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu has no declared strategy for the upcoming election calendar. He has no declared plan for diagnosing the defects of the CHP structure and updating it, no declared plan for taking the big cities from the AK Parti in the the municipal elections, and no declared plan for the key presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held together in 2019.

Kılıçdaroğlu has only made one statement, about a month ago, in which he said he did not want to be a candidate for the presidency, as he believes the president should be a non-partisan individual.

That assessment might cost Kılıçdaroğlu and the CHP dearly. The CHP believes the president should be non-partisan, but the system has changed now. The CHP could try to change the system if it becomes the dominant power in parliament. But according to the current system, there will soon be no place left for the prime minister, whose office will be abolished as it will be the president who chairs the cabinet. 

The political cost of presenting a non-CHP candidate in the presidential election of 2014 (when the CHP supported Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, now an MP for MHP) still haunts the CHP grassroots. It is possible that potential CHP voters will again question the logic of a party that does not try to claim political power.

So as Erdoğan has started to make moves for his election goals, eyes are now also on Kılıçdaroğlu regarding his possible moves.