What next for Turkiye’s ailing opposition?
The post-national elections era in Turkiye has become complicated because of the failure of the so-called Table of Six coalition. A new set of elections — this time at the municipal level — will be held on March 31 next year. Two dynamics are likely to play a role in these local elections. One is the set of problems stemming from the internal structure of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, which is known as the CHP. The other is the absence of genuine solidarity among the opposition parties.
The CHP is a political party established in 1923, a few months before the proclamation of the republic, but it is the continuation of a party established in 1889, during the Ottoman era.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, wanted to make the party a precursor to the regime he was trying to establish, but after he passed away rivalry grew among the leading members of the party.
Multiparty democracy was introduced in Turkiye in 1946, 23 years after the proclamation of the republic. Military coups interrupted democracy several times.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the present leader of the CHP, is eager to remain at the helm of the party despite widespread opposition. By making alliances with other splinter parties, he has diluted the social democratic ideology of the CHP. He will perhaps now need to return to the original factory settings of the party.
For the sake of embracing larger numbers of voters, Kilicdaroglu moved toward conservatism and away from social democracy, which was the main ideology of the party. But he had to bear in mind that the conservative segment of the Turkish electorate generally votes for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, so there is no room there for the CHP.
The CHP is lacking strong leadership. Kilicdaroglu comes from bureaucracy. His belonging to the Alawite sect is also considered a minus by the majority Sunni population of Turkiye. He has lost all the elections he has participated in. The electoral support for his party has stagnated at about 25 percent. Many recipes proposed by the elders of the CHP did not change the situation.
Kilicdaroglu’s leadership was particularly badly bruised by his failure in May’s general elections. Ekrem Imamoglu, the present metropolitan mayor of Istanbul, has prepared himself first for the chairmanship of the party, then for the presidency of the republic.
Major metropolitan agglomerations are at present held by the opposition, but Erdogan tries hard to win them by using all tools available to the government.
In the last municipal elections, Imamoglu became the mayor of Istanbul mainly thanks to the Kurds who live there, but it is unclear whether he will be able to emerge victorious this time as a result of the fragmented votes of the CHP. He intends to use another victory in Istanbul next year as a stepping stone toward the presidential post in the 2029 elections.
The CHP has ceased being a political party that can move the people to adhere to social democratic ideals.
Apart from the CHP, there is only Meral Aksener’s IYI Party that has to be considered seriously among the opposition. During the run-up to the last general elections, she made an unnecessary move to leave the Table of Six because she thought that Kilicdaroglu was not the most suitable candidate for the presidency. She cited several reasons for her move, including the fact he is an Alawite, that Kilicdaroglu had won none of the previous elections he had participated in, and that he was not a leader who could motivate the masses to get behind him. Her choice for the leadership of the CHP was Imamoglu.
However, Aksener changed her mind within three days and came back to the Table of Six. Her move must have cost her a great deal of support. It is now unclear whether the Table of Six can or should be revived. Her declared aim was to change the presidential system of Turkiye and to become prime minister.
Late former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has been the only leader to blow some dynamism and fresh air into the party. In other words, the CHP has been slowly weakening. Its progress has ground to a halt under Kilicdaroglu. The party that was established by Ataturk is now in a helpless situation.
The CHP has ceased being a political party that can move the people to adhere to social democratic ideals. Instead, it has become a party that aims at the lowest expectations of the people. Because of the absence of an ideology, the CHP is unable to propose to its electorate a new set of targets and still hesitates regarding what it should do for the forthcoming local elections.
Erdogan’s AK Party considers democracy to be a tool to ratify its programs every four or five years. Former President Abdullah Gul said on one occasion that “democracy is not only the ballot boxes. It is more than that.” Fundamental rights and freedoms, respect for human rights, and freedom of conscience are also indispensable parts.
While Erdogan has announced a general mobilization for next year’s local elections, the opposition is still busy trying to devise a strategy.
It is unclear whether the Table of Six has already been dissolved. Some believe that it was a coalition formed for the May 2023 elections and, now that those elections are over, its constituent parts may not come together again for the next local elections — or they may even establish other coalitions.
What is evident is that the opposition CHP party established by Ataturk is ailing.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party.