Can CHP rally its troops behind İhsanoğlu for presidency?

Can CHP rally its troops behind İhsanoğlu for presidency?

In a somewhat surprising move, Turkey’s two major opposition parties announced earlier this week that they had agreed to name a joint candidate to run in the August presidential polls.

Although the talks between the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were not secret, very few expected the two parties to agree on a candidate. And much fewer expected that name to be Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The announcement made by the two parties’ leaders on June 16 was met with approval on the MHP side, where there is a strong tradition of obeying leaders’ decisions. But the CHP, famous for its inner party struggles, was not so lucky.

The first reactions came from different sides of the party - from nationalist lawmakers and a socialist lawmaker, who are usually at each other’s throats anyway.

While Hüseyin Aygün, the CHP’s Tunceli deputy who identifies himself as a socialist, complained through his Twitter account that the party should have nominated “a leftist candidate” for the post – in addition to the anger of nationalists and staunch secularists who focused on İhsanoğlu’s identity, claiming that he is a representative of political Islam.

“I am in deep sorrow and shame,” CHP Istanbul deputy Nur Serter said.  “A dagger has been stabbed into the heart of the CHP. We will evaluate what we will do with our friends.”

Whether İhsanoğlu is a political Islamist – those who know him say he is not – does not have much significance; with his background, he is perceived as such. Even his name, which has its roots in Arabic and means “matured by religion,” gives the “impression” that he is an Islamist.

In a meeting of around 15 lawmakers, also attended by Serter and Aygün, the party’s former leader Deniz Baykal reportedly rejected the idea of running independently for the presidential post.

CHP members and voters also went berserk on the social media. Kemalists, staunch secularists and leftists attacked CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. While one side said Kılıçdaroğlu was “betraying Atatürk and the fundamental values of the republic,” the leftists criticized the transfer of yet another right-wing name to the party.

Kılıçdaroğlu made a similar move in the March 30 local polls, nominating center-right names in provinces such as Ankara, Hatay and Bursa. Despite the victory in Hatay, the move failed to make a significant change in the party’s votes, despite a reaction in the country against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Meanwhile, Doğan News Agency yesterday reported a poll among provincial heads of the CHP. According to the report, 14 of the 81 provincial heads voiced their doubts about the decision, three others openly opposed the idea, and the rest voiced support. The same report said all of the MHP provincial heads were 100 percent behind MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s decision.

These numbers are important, because the local politicians that are being questioned here are supposed to lead campaigns in their provinces. However, İhsanoğlu will not officially be the CHP’s candidate, a fact also voiced by Kılıçdaroğlu who said İhsanoğlu will be “the candidate of the nation,” so convincing party members to actively work in the campaign will be more difficult.

So Kılıçdaroğlu has rolled the dice again, this time in a direct race against Erdoğan, who is expected to run for the presidency, though no official announcement has been made yet. For CHP supporters, voting for Erdoğan is never an option, but the disappointment with their candidate may take its toll in voter participation. Millions of potential CHP voters, many of whom will be in their summerhouses on the southern and western coasts, seem now to be less passionate about taking a break from their vacations to vote.

Anyway, İhsanoğlu should also come up with some good stuff during the campaign, because it seems like relying solely on anti-AKP rhetoric is doomed to fail.