Turkey’s opposition CHP prioritizes foreign relations
As Turkey has entered campaign season ahead of the nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in 2023, the country’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, known by its Turkish acronym of CHP, has rolled up its sleeves in an effort to garner support both at home and abroad. The CHP’s senior officials have recently paid two critical visits, firstly to Irbil and secondly to Athens.
A senior CHP delegation this month made a first-ever visit to Irbil to meet Kurdistan Regional Government officials in a move that was widely considered to be an effort to woo Kurdish voters at home, as Turkish elections have become tough to win without their support. The visit to Irbil was seen as a crucial opportunity to change the CHP’s anti-Kurdish image. The delegation’s members had meetings with top KRG officials, including President Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq. For the KRG, which enjoys close relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AKP party, the CHP delegation’s visit was considered to be an important move to diversify its relations with different actors in Turkey, particularly at a time when the AKP seems to look electorally fragile. From the Kurdish perspective, the CHP’s approach to the KRG is very significant and is regarded as mutually beneficial.
During the visit, the CHP delegation underlined that one of its main purposes was to share the party’s proposal to establish a “Middle East Peace and Cooperation Organization” that would bring together Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey in order to resolve regional issues. It has previously highlighted this proposal in order to normalize Turkey’s relations with Syria. The CHP, which has been critical of the government’s policy on Syria for a long time, pledges that, if it takes power, it will normalize relations with the Damascus regime and end the “tragedy” of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. This pledge is likely to garner votes, as anti-refugee sentiment has been growing in the country in recent years. Having been criticized for its refugee policy, the current government seems to want to revise its policy, as the foreign minister has recently stated that Turkey is working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on a plan to repatriate Syrians to their home country.
Having dominated politics in the country for almost two decades, the ruling AKP is used to success. However, the party faced a severe electoral defeat when it lost the country’s major cities, Ankara and Istanbul, to the CHP in the 2019 municipal elections. The decision by the pro-Kurdish HDP to support the opposition candidates in major metropolitan cities, instead of its own candidates, was one of the most important factors in the CHP’s victory, not to mention the deteriorating economy.
Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has vowed to resolve the Kurdish question by abandoning politics over faith, identity and lifestyles.
In a bid to maintain the support of the HDP and millions of Kurdish voters, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has vowed to resolve the Kurdish question by abandoning politics over faith, identity and lifestyles. In his visit to the southeastern province of Van in mid-August, Kilicdaroglu, in a self-criticism, admitted that the CHP had pursued incorrect policies in the past by breaking away from the people. “But we changed this. The party that has changed the most in the last 10 years is the CHP,” he stressed.
Needless to say, as the ruling AKP has changed in the past decade, the CHP did too. In the early years of AKP rule, the CHP, under Deniz Baykal’s leadership, stood as the “guardian” of the secular republic, maintaining an oppositional discourse toward the Kurds, the EU and regional countries, playing into the hands of the AKP. However, since 2010, with the leadership of the secular Alevi leader Kilicdaroglu, the CHP began transforming its nationalist agenda and oppositional discourse, adopting new election strategies against the AKP. These strategies included approaching conservative voters and the Kurds, and engaging in diplomatic contacts with the countries that the government is at odds with. One of these countries is Greece, which the CHP’s Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu visited this week.
Following an official invitation by his Athens counterpart, Imamoglu, who is possibly the most debated opposition figure in Turkey, paid a two-day official visit to the Greek capital. Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis visited Istanbul in May, when the two mayors signed a memorandum of understanding and cooperation in the fields of culture and tourism. Imamoglu, a pro-European social democrat, was also received by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Speaking to the Kathimerini newspaper, Imamoglu recalled the rapprochement efforts of former Greek and Turkish ministers George Papandreou and Ismail Cem in the early 2000s to underline the importance of a healthy relationship between Ankara and Athens. Imamoglu’s reference to that era was crucial as it signals the period before the AKP came to power in the country.
While the government has recently engaged in efforts to reconcile its relations with several countries, the CHP is also trying to create a new vision in its foreign policy to increase its number of friends abroad. As the country is approaching a critical election, foreign policy is likely to be high on the agenda of both the ruling and the opposition parties.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz