CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu with a grenade in his hand | Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç.

CHP’s Kılıçdaroğlu tries every trick in the book

'The 2023 election campaign is likely to keep surprising everyone. As the 'Century of Türkiye' begins, it seems that no issue will be left unaddressed on the campaign trail'

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu seems determined to do everything in his power to improve his profile as a presidential candidate. His most recent move, a bill designed to put in place legal safeguards for the religious headscarf, caused some reactions in the political arena. Knowing that his pledge to “make amends” won’t be enough to win over conservative voters, Kılıçdaroğlu attempts, at the encouragement of some former Justice and Development Party (AK Party) members, to persuade Türkiye’s religious conservatives that the CHP won’t pursue a revanchist policy.

Ironically, the main opposition leader’s headscarf move ended up playing into the hand of the People’s Alliance and served to make additional room for a new regulation and discourse. It is certainly possible that his party’s bill alleviated the concerns of the Future Party (GP), the Felicity Party (SP) and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), which are part of the opposition bloc known as the “table for six.”

Yet the known and unknown opponents of the religious headscarf among the CHP ranks are furious. Indeed, they already question what that move, which plays into the AK Party’s hand, is supposed to achieve and what the opposition could possibly win as a result of a new regulation that they do not support.

It goes without saying that religious freedoms represent an area, where the AK Party is in the best position to take political action without anyone questioning its sincerity. It is virtually impossible for Kılıçdaroğlu to gain the upper hand against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in that area with his discourse.

Moreover, that the former AK Party members seated around the “table for six” feel better as a result of that regulation itself is problematic. After all, they found themselves in a position of weakness, praising the CHP, a political party that spearheaded the anti-headscarf movement for a long time, for taking a step regarding an issue, which had been normalized thanks to the AK Party’s struggle for rights and liberties.


Responding to the religious conservative agenda of transforming Türkiye and helping it move up in the world with assurances from the CHP is a certainly defensive and weak approach. In the end, those parties will face criticism from conservative voters if the CHP or themselves fail to support Erdoğan’s proposed constitutional amendment.

It was already clear that the 2023 election campaign would be colorful and full of heated debates. Everyone expected a blend of inclusive moves and attempts to blame the other side for polarization. In this sense, identity-related demands playing a dominant role were inevitable.

Erdoğan’s visit to a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship, was the first step in that direction. This time around, Kılıçdaroğlu seems eager to try new tactics to win votes – even if he needs to contradict his party’s history and his personal past in the process. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Kılıçdaroğlu couldn’t predict that the AK Party, which oversaw a silent revolution in Türkiye, won’t double down on any proposal when it comes to addressing identity-related demands. That, in turn, suggests that the CHP chairperson could take fresh steps that could potentially test his base’s limits.

At the end of the day, Erdoğan had no problem putting his potential opponent in a position to prove that he was being sincere. As a matter of fact, the president even signaled that additional steps could be taken to address the Alevi community’s demands.

I believe that such competition among Türkiye’s political parties, which ultimately serves to consolidate the domain of liberties, is a good thing. One could expect the Kurdish question to come up in this new atmosphere as well. That would take the question of identity politics to a whole new level. In this sense, (potential) candidates promoting reforms and accusing their opponent(s) of being dishonest or insincere serve the electorate’s interest. Setting aside the question of which party stands to gain most from that contest, it is a fact that our democracy could benefit from it greatly.

Undoubtedly, Kılıçdaroğlu’s most recent move forced CHP members unhappy with their chairperson’s attempts to engage with the conservatives into a corner. Even if one were to assume that they will find a way to stomach Kılıçdaroğlu’s proposal, Erdoğan doubling down on that plan seems unacceptable from the perspective of the “secular anger.”

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that the Good Party (IP) keeps silent. It seems like that movement, too, is exhausted by Kılıçdaroğlu pushing all the buttons at the same time.

The fresh proposals regarding Alevi and Kurdish identity cause the political agenda to refocus on identity issues. This time around, however, a new kind of identity debate is in the making. On the one hand, there are proposed initiatives and inclusive proposals. On the other, we have a discriminatory discourse disguised as a positive step.

To sum up, the 2023 election campaign is likely to keep surprising everyone. As the “Century of Türkiye” begins, it seems that no issue will be left unaddressed on the campaign trail.

[Daily Sabah, October 7, 2022]

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