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For whom the bell tolls: Quo vadis Turkish opposition?

Ayşe Yürekli

Date: 01/08/2023
Ahead of crucial municipal elections, Türkiye’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, must rapidly resolve its internal struggles democratically and transparently.

In post-election Türkiye, the Republican People's Party (CHP) is going through a profound transformation, marked by an ongoing leadership power struggle. With municipal elections slated for 31 March 2024, conflict must be solved quickly. Failing to do so could threaten the CHP’s hold on crucial metropoles while also jeopardising the presence of a robust opposition in an increasingly authoritarian country.

It is a critical moment for long-time leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to consider passing the torch, not only for the party’s future but for democracy, accountability, and progress in Türkiye. From the EU’s point of view, it is also desirable to see a strong opposition that can challenge the government, foster democratic processes, and drive positive transformation.

Kılıçdaroğlu and the status quo

Despite initial optimism, the ruling People's Alliance led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged victorious in the May 2023 twin elections, securing a parliamentary majority and extending Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's term for another five years in office.

With Erdoğan's determination to end the interregnum period of CHP rule and win back Istanbul and Ankara in the upcoming municipal elections, the opposition must urgently get its house in order. The dire state of the economy, as evident in the recent elections, does not guarantee an opposition victory. To restore hope among the electorate, the opposition needs fresh ideas and an inspiring narrative for success. However, despite the strong calls for change, Kılıçdaroğlu appears hesitant to step down.

During his 13-year leadership, Kılıçdaroğlu has suffered consecutive defeats, except for the 2019 local elections. In his first post-election interview, he evaded responsibility for CHP’s poor performance, insisting that the opposition’s 48% vote share in the runoff – given the unfair conditions – cannot be considered ‘defeat’, remaining resolute in “his ability to safely navigate the ship to the port”. However, he is likely to come under immense pressure before the CHP Congress later this year.

Besides new leadership, overcoming rigidity within the CHP's structure is essential for progress. While Kılıçdaroğlu’s swift reshuffling of the Central Executive Board and the dismissal of advisors were necessary steps, they fall short of addressing the core problem. To advance, the CHP must be open to embrace a new generation of leaders and a visionary agenda while implementing reforms, fostering innovation, and adopting fresh perspectives.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s readiness to expand the opposition alliance to include fringe parties like the anti-immigrant Victory Party (ZP) raises further concerns. Allegedly, with a confidential protocol before the runoff, he promised Ümit Özdağ, the leader of ZP, three ministries, including the Interior and the National Intelligence Agency (MİT). This leaked information has caused discontent among other members of the opposition coalition, particularly the IYI Party. It may lead to a trust issue that could potentially jeopardise the possibility of running together in March 2024.

With growing discontent inside the party, calls for new blood are increasing, and Ekrem İmamoğlu, the dynamic mayor of Istanbul, emerges as a strong contender for party leadership.

İmamoğlu and the status novus

İmamoğlu has become a key figure in the party, a beacon of hope and a symbol of change, praised for his widespread popularity. His victory in the 2019 local elections was a significant milestone given Istanbul’s prominence as Türkiye's largest city and economic hub. It also represented a setback for Erdoğan, who launched his political career as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.

In several discussions with Kılıçdaroğlu, İmamoğlu has expressed his views on the need for change. While İmamoğlu has avoided a blatant leadership grab, he advocates for the emergence of a new leader within a reasonable timeframe. Thus far, he has not endorsed calls for Kılıçdaroğlu's resignation but instead expressed his willingness to collaborate through an ombudsman role.

However, there are major differences between the two rivals in the upcoming local elections. While Kılıçdaroğlu prioritises immediate victory in these elections, İmamoğlu stresses that success cannot be guaranteed without tangible steps to address the disillusionment and despair that has gripped the electorate. He insists on the necessity for change, stating: “we should never forget that every minute we resist change, we create distance between ourselves and society”. His stance is motivated by the risks of a weak opposition, leaving citizens vulnerable to those in power.

In his latest op-ed, İmamoğlu highlights the need for a new vision for Türkiye's future, stressing democratic leadership and their responsibility to serve the people and know when to step down. He maintains that “bold leadership is essential for fostering a courageous democracy”.

İmamoğlu‘s launch of an online platform for citizen participation showcases his dedication to an inclusive democratic approach. The website has garnered significant engagement, with over one million page views and 100,000 contributions in less than a month. As İmamoğlu carefully strategises his next steps, the intra-party competition is expected to intensify ahead of the CHP National Congress, where the showdown will take place.

Kılıçdaroğlu emphasises that the CHP operates as a cadre-based party and is not centred around a single leader, likely intended to discourage İmamoğlu's ambitions. He claims that he would immediately resign if a candidate without any baggage were to emerge for leadership. Yet, in a preventive move, on 23 July, Kılıçdaroğlu confirmed İmamoğlu's candidacy for Istanbul mayorship, seemingly to safeguard his position and potentially avoid İmamoğlu challenging him for party leadership before the local elections.

In any event, due to ongoing court cases, İmamoğlu's political future remains uncertain. A new indictment accuses him of 'tender fraud' during his previous tenure, with prosecutors seeking a prison sentence of up to 7 years and a political ban. He also awaits the Court of Cassation's review of a prior ruling for allegedly ‘insulting’ Türkiye's election board members. If upheld, İmamoğlu’s ambitions could be at serious risk.

The peril of a weak opposition

The growing tensions within the CHP risk impacting the upcoming elections. Both Kılıçdaroğlu and İmamoğlu bear significant responsibility for managing the process and preventing further division within the party. The 1994 local elections serve as a bitter reminder of the consequences of a fragmented social democratic front, resulting in the loss of Istanbul and Ankara to the AKP for 25 years.

Within CHP circles, various leadership formulas for change are being discussed, including the possibility of a third alternative candidate who can work closely with both Kılıçdaroğlu and İmamoğlu. Özgür Özel, the leader of the CHP Parliamentary Group, has already expressed his readiness to take on such responsibility if given the task. Therefore, it is essential for the CHP to resolve its internal struggles as soon as possible.

Indeed, while a solid and united opposition safeguarding democratic values is a cornerstone of democracy, a fragmented and weak one can reinforce authoritarian tendencies. It is imperative for the Turkish opposition, and especially the CHP, to collectively recognise its responsibility in upholding democratic principles.

Without necessary reform, there is a looming risk of Türkiye facing a scenario akin to ‘Russianisation’, where increased control over media, civil society organisations, political parties, and institutions could further stifle dissenting voices. This consolidation of power undermines the checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy. An effective opposition is crucial to preserve the pluralistic and inclusive nature of Türkiye's political landscape. Moreover, as Türkiye remains an EU accession country, European actors have an essential role to play.

An important EU partner

The EU must engage with Türkiye as a crucial partner for regional stability and influence. This involves constructive dialogues with the government and opposition parties to comprehend their perspectives and support their development. EU supported actors, including civil society organisations, political foundations, professional associations, chambers of commerce, and individual MEPs, should actively explore diverse communication channels to engage their counterparts and support the advancement of democratic processes and institutions in the country.

Political solidarity and collaborative initiatives between European political party families and Türkiye’s opposition can be the major conduits of exchange, holding immense potential for driving positive change. This collaboration can lead to strengthening civil society, promoting media freedom, and enhancing the participation of marginalised groups. Sharing experiences, best practices, and providing capacity-building programmes can improve the effectiveness of the opposition in policy development, grassroots organising and outreach. Hence, European political actors can contribute to a more democratic and equitable society in Türkiye by working towards a progressive and inclusive agenda that resonates with the aspirations of many Turks.

The way forward

The Turkish opposition stands at a critical crossroads, where its choices will shape the country’s future. It is vital to take ownership of failures and work urgently towards repairing them. To effectively challenge the ruling party, the opposition must craft a compelling narrative that resonates with the electorate's aspirations. Ultimately, the struggle for democracy extends beyond just electoral outcomes. The desire for change and the pursuit of democracy in Türkiye remain significant, with the long-term impact relying on the opposition's resilience and the society's engagement in upholding democratic values.

Erdoğan has vowed to leave no stone unturned ahead of the municipal elections. The CHP must also find the same motivation. Only through a united and credible opposition front can Türkiye chart a course toward a more democratic and prosperous future. The bell tolls for the Turkish opposition, urging them to rise above personal agendas and work together for the good of the country, since it is in their hands to shape the way forward.

Ayşe Yürekli is an experienced professional in the fields of policy, business, and civil society, specializing in the European Union, with a focus on promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In her most recent role, she served as a senior expert at TUSIAD, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (Berlin Office).

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

This Commentary is part of the EPC's Global Türkiye project.

Photo credits:
Yasin Akgul / AFP

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