The illustration mocks Özgür Özel (L), the new chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu sitting on the top of the chair of the CHP chairmanship with the flag of the party seen in the left background. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

Direction of change in Türkiye’s main opposition CHP

Türkiye’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, lost the race for Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairperson to Özgür Özel over the weekend.

Türkiye’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, lost the race for Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairperson to Özgür Özel over the weekend.

It remains to be seen what kind of chairperson Özel, who defeated Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round as the “pro-change” candidate with the support of Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, will become and how he intends to align the movement ideologically.

Moreover, pundits have already started to speculate on potential intraparty tensions between Özel and Imamoğlu. The main question is whether Özel will be a mere placeholder or the CHP will be governed by two co-chairs.

There is a clear reason why one would ask that question: Even pro-CHP commentators refer to the “Özel-Imamoğlu era” or make a distinction between “Imamoğlu the leader” and “Özel the chairperson.”

Let me stress that there is no “fraternal law” in politics – just as there was no room for a relationship of “father and son.” That discourse would hardly conceal the power-sharing arrangement and rivalry until the March 2024 municipal elections.

Going forward, how Imamoğlu and Özel will share power shall represent the single greatest challenge before the main opposition party.

No belief

Indeed, I do not believe that change, that still magical word means the same thing to Özel and Imamoğlu. Hence the possibility of friction when the time comes to put “change” into practice.

That’s because there is an inherent clash between Imamoğlu’s “colorless and globalist” approach and Özel’s discourse of “leftist change.” Whereas the newly-elected CHP chairperson makes references to “revolution” and “reversing the drift to the right,” Istanbul’s mayor, with his roots in right-wing politics, prefers to talk about “transformation.”

Whereas Imamoğlu pledges to “shape Türkiye’s opposition as a whole,” Özel shoots for social-democratic solidarity.

It is no secret that Kılıçdaroğlu faced mounting criticism over his decision to welcome right-wing politicians to the main opposition party within the framework of this policy of “making amends.” There is reason to believe that his successor will end that practice and instead welcome various shades of the Left into the movement. His point of reference is the late Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit and his comrades who correctly interpreted the meaning of the leftist wind at the time.

Obviously, embracing leftist and class-centered politics may radicalize the main opposition party. It would be a huge mistake to frown upon the rapport that Kılıçdaroğlu built with some right-wing nationalists over the years.

If the newly-elected leadership chooses to address the frustration of some CHP members over sending right-wing politicians to the Parliament, they might become isolated and ultimately fail to connect with different social groups despite campaigning loudly. That would also make it more difficult for the main opposition party to build alliances with other opposition movements.

Ideological framework

Another important point is that Özel and Imamoğlu will find it extremely difficult to create an ideological framework that will keep together their party’s neo-nationalist, social democratic and Kemalist supporters.

It goes without saying that Özel, a known polemicist, could make strongly worded statements – perhaps even more than his predecessor. That would consolidate the CHP base anew ahead of next year’s municipal elections.

The main challenge, however, remains developing new policies. Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach to party politics was vastly unpopular.

Do the Özel-Imamoğlu duo have what it takes to make different types of CHP supports with different ideological expectations happy as well as meet the demands of fellow opposition parties?

For the time being, the main opposition party and its supporters tap into Özel’s victory to inspire hope among voters. Indeed, they are already turning it into a full-fledged campaign.

Yet the challenge of backing up the “change” discourse with actual content threatens to undo that momentum within a short period of time. It is also important to acknowledge the possibility of Özel and Imamoğlu’s supporters competing with each other and starting a word of words.

The kind of “mobilization” that Özel would like to carry out within the main opposition party could create new opportunities for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Had Kılıçdaroğlu been re-elected as CHP chairperson, the perception that the main opposition party would surely be defeated in next year’s municipal elections might have caused the AK Party not to take the campaign seriously.

Considering what happened over the weekend, the country should expect an extremely exciting campaign.

Going forward, the ruling party will target the CHP whether it charts the course of “change” or refrains from explaining what kind of change it promotes.

Under the leadership of Özel and Imamoğlu, the main opposition party will have to create a “coherent and inclusive” framework for change as well as successfully address mounting criticism.

Now that the CHP chairperson has been replaced, the Turkish people will concentrate on the nature of the proposed changes.

There is reason to believe that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will criticize the new main opposition leader by drawing parallels between Kılıçdaroğlu and his successor.

Last but not least, it would be a mistake to discount the possibility of “change” causing fatigue, confusion and weariness within the main opposition party.

[Daily Sabah, November 9, 2023]

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