CHP’s Kilicdaroglu: The candidate of the opposition?

CHP’s Kilicdaroglu: The candidate of the opposition?
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Lingering doubts about Kilicdaroglu’s ability to defeat Erdogan fuel the debate

Everyone in Turkey is sure that the elections expected to be held in 2023 will be contentious. It is certain that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has ruled the country since 2002, will run again.

However, the candidate of the opposition is still being debated. Although the main opposition party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has come to the fore as a candidate, there is no definite candidate, yet. The names of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas are also prominent. So why is Kilicdaroglu's candidacy being questioned, since the leader of the main opposition party is normally expected to be the natural candidate?

Kilicdaroglu's Story

After serving as a senior bureaucrat for many years, Kemal Kilicdaroglu joined politics from the CHP and became a deputy. Kilicdaroglu, who became known for the documents he released to the public against corruption, started to gain appreciation from the CHP grassroots with his simple and moderate attitude. He became the leader of the CHP in 2010 after the sex tape of former Chairman Deniz Baykal emerged and he resigned.

Kilicdaroglu, who belongs to the Alevi minority that makes up 15-20% of Turkey, has always avoided being a polarizing figure. Although he could not increase the votes for his party (which has not been able to increase its votes for many years), it has drawn a different voter profile in this regard by making alliances with right-wing parties or sometimes by nominating right-wing candidates in every election.

In the local elections in 2014, he nominated candidates who were not of CHP roots in many places. The CHP, which lost the election in Ankara by a small margin, managed to challenge the "invincible" AKP, although it was not generally successful.

In the 2014 Presidential Election, he nominated a joint opposition candidate with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which now supports the government but was in opposition at the time. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the right-wing candidate coming from outside of politics, received a vote below expectations.

In the general elections of 2015, the AKP lost its majority after many years.

However, opposition parties needed the support of the Kurdish political party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), and the nationalist MHP opposed it. While the negotiations for the grand coalition between the AKP and CHP were going on, the peace process with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which had been implemented for a while, was ended and an era of violence began in the Kurdish region. In the renewed elections held in this environment, the AKP, which adopted a security-oriented rhetoric, won the election by a large margin. During this period, Kilicdaroglu was accused of being deceived by the AKP.

Coup Attempt and Authoritarian Turkey

After the coup attempt in 2016, Turkey entered a state of emergency. In this period, the system change desired by the government came from the constitutional amendment referendum held in 2017 and Turkey attained an authoritarian presidential regime. Kilicdaroglu was accused of not resisting enough against the technical problems and allegations of fraud during the voting.

Kilicdaroglu, who started a campaign after a member of parliament from his party was sentenced to prison as a result of a political lawsuit in 2017, marched from Ankara to Istanbul and carried out a "March for Justice." Despite its impact, the march did not change the political arena, but according to many experts, it helped Kilicdaroglu regain his waning popularity within the party.

In June 2018, the government decided to hold an early election to implement the new system. After the MHP sided with the AKP, the Good Party which broke away from the MHP did not have the qualifications to enter these elections. However, Kilicdaroglu made a move and transferred 15 deputies from his own party to the Good Party, enabling the Good Party to enter the election with a legal trick.

Seeing that he had no chance in the face of this snap election, Kilicdaroglu wanted to nominate Abdullah Gul, a former AKP member and former Turkish President. However, Gul was removed from the candidacy with the intervention of the Chief of General Staff and some prominent AKP members. Kilicdaroglu could not get a joint candidate, so he nominated Muharrem Ince, who was in opposition to him within the party, as a candidate. Even though Ince received more votes than the opposition’s expectations, Erdogan won the election with 52.59% in the first round.

In the local elections in 2019, CHP and Good Party entered into an alliance. Kilicdaroglu ensured that the HDP did not nominate candidates in big cities, and achieved a great success by winning the elections of the first three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.

Competition for Candidate

After the success in the local elections, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu or Mansur Yavas were expected to run for the Presidency. It was the opinion of many that Kilicdaroglu, who was not a candidate in the 2014 and 2018 elections, would indicate another candidate. However, at the beginning of 2022, during the unity formed by the coming together of the six parties and the “making amends” process initiated by Kilicdaroglu, it was spoken in Ankara’s backstage that Kilicdaroglu was enthusiastic about being a candidate himself. Kilicdaroglu also said in a statement he made in December 2021, "I cannot speak on behalf of the alliance, but if the alliance accepts this, I will be honored."

In a speech on September 23 Kilicdaroglu asked, "Are you with me?" and requested support from the party members, the positive response of Imamoglu and Yavas was perceived as support for the candidacy.

On the other hand, it is known that the Good Party does not favor Kilicdaroglu's candidacy, because Kilicdaroglu seems to be behind Yavas and Imamoglu in the polls.

Having an opinion that Kilicdaroglu will not win the election, the Good Party is lobbying for other candidates.

Can He Win?

Since the day he became the head of the party, the CHP leader has purged the nationalist wing within the party, making the party more democratic socialist and social democrat. Thus, he became more sympathetic to the Kurds. There were concerns that being an Alevi created some reserve about him among right-wing voters. In contrast, Kilicdaroglu transformed the CHP into a party that respects the religious, rather than the ultra-secular party it used to be.

Kilicdaroglu started a dialogue with the Kurds and conservatives within the framework of the concept of “making amends” that he started. However, Kilicdaroglu, who faced criticism that his dialogue with the Kurds frightened the right-wing voters, who were distant from the Kurds, is also criticized about the “Table of Six.” It is said that this structure, which was established by the CHP and Good Party with four small parties, was established to certify Kilicdaroglu's candidacy. It is said that Kilicdaroglu promised small parties post-election positions for this.

Eight months before the elections, which are expected to be held in June 2023, the candidate of the opposition is still unknown. It is claimed that the opposition will announce its candidate at the last moment so that he will not be worn out by the government. Kilicdaroglu has come to the fore as a leader who is far from a harsh political language, who enters conciliatory and pragmatic alliances. Now, it is said that if he loses the election he wants to nominate himself in, his political life will come to an end.

According to Abdulkadir Selvi, a journalist close to Erdogan and a writer for the pro-government newspaper Hurriyet, who often writes about Kilicdaroglu's candidacy, the biggest obstacle to Kilicdaroglu's candidacy is Good Party leader Aksener's decision to keep the Table of Six from disintegrating. She will not oppose his candidacy “If Kilicdaroglu's candidacy comes out of the 6-way table, Aksener is not expected to play a blocking role. Because there is thought to be an agreement between the two leaders,” he wrote.

Journalist İsmail Saymaz, who wrote on the HalkTV website close to the CHP, also thinks that Kilicdaroglu's candidacy has been finalized. Saymaz claims that Kilicdaroglu is entitled to this as the leader of the opposition's largest party.

Murat Yetkin, one of the leading journalists, said that he did not see Kilicdaroglu's request for support from his party as a candidacy announcement. Yetkin said, “I don't think this is the announcement of Kilicdaroglu's candidacy, it means ‘whoever I nominate, you will not oppose him.’”

As the elections approach, many commentators regard Kilicdaroglu's candidacy as a certainty. Despite this, there are many objections, especially by the Good Party. If the election is lost, the way for AKP and Erdogan to remain in power until 2028 will be paved. This feeds the concerns that Erdoganism will dominate the country. Therefore, the results of the candidacy debate seem to be relevant also in terms of the the years after the election.