Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairperson whom the opposition holds responsible for their defeat in May 2023 elections, has been fighting for survival in the face of mounting criticism. Trying to keep his seat, the 74-year-old politician presses all the buttons at once – as he had on the campaign trail. He likens CHP to a ship and insists that his job as its captain is to take it to “the port” safely. He also counters the increasingly rampant discourse of change with an emphasis on renewal.
Kılıçdaroğlu has described Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu’s secret Zoom meeting with senior CHP officials as “ethically unsettling” yet referred to a secret protocol between himself and Ümit Özdağ, who leads the far-right Victory Party (ZP), as a document “entrusted in the honor of the two of us.”
The main opposition leader recently invoked Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founder, as a last resort to defend himself. Speaking to a group of Hürriyet columnists, he reiterated his commitment to leading CHP “even if I were to suffer injuries on 10 fronts.” He also claimed that he was right to form the “table for six” and pledge to “make amends” with reference to Atatürk’s famous table: “I won’t open to question my party’s leftist, nationalist or patriotic credentials. Seated around Atatürk’s table were extreme nationalists, extreme leftists, conservative opinion leaders and liberal minorities. Atatürk became who he was because he set that table and built a homeland from there. I am marching forward by restoring CHP’s very essence – by inviting Sivas, Samsun, Diyarbakır and Sakarya to our table, as Atatürk once did.”
Using Atatürk as symbol of justification is not new
It is not uncommon for politicians in Türkiye to invoke Atatürk as a common symbol to justify their actions. Serving as CHP chairperson, Kılıçdaroğlu’s decision to go down that road to silence his critics was certainly unsurprising. Yet, his latest attempt to justify himself was but another button that the main opposition leader, under fire from all directions, was compelled to press. After all, drawing parallels with the republic’s founder would hardly legitimize Kılıçdaroğlu’s public and secret deals before the May 2023 elections or persuade the intraparty opposition to end the campaign for change. Simply put, the rank and file of the main opposition party cannot cope with their movement’s heavy defeat by referencing the War of Independence or the republic’s early years. Its supporters would neither.
Indeed, a historical analysis of Atatürk’s table might fuel a new wave of ideologically charged criticism against Kılıçdaroğlu. To make matters worse, the pro-change camp could easily use that comparison against their party’s embattled chairperson by saying that Atatürk’s table was never defeated.
Kılıçdaroğlu, who presses all the buttons to reinforce the identity of the CHP, which marked the beginning of the republic’s second century with a loss, finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He made all possible statements prior to the May 2023 elections. He cut all possible deals, openly and secretly, only to lose the race.
Today, the CHP chairperson seeks to remain in charge until next year’s municipal elections to recover from that loss and form a new alliance with fellow opposition leaders. Yet, his secret deal with the head of the Victory Party (ZP), Ümit Özdağ, of which other members of the opposition bloc were unaware until the recent leaks, causes the “table for six” to face a crisis of confidence. Whereas Kılıçdaroğlu insists that he merely failed to “address the concerns of conservative urbanites,” the real problem was the general population’s lack of faith in the opposition’s presidential candidate and his metaphorical table.
The electorate’s trust has further eroded since the election – a problem that will persist as long as Kılıçdaroğlu sticks around. Ordinary voters and political leaders will wonder and question what he may have pledged to others.
Pressing all the buttons was not enough for the main opposition leader to win the May 2023 elections. If anything, that decision remains at the heart of the opposition’s ongoing and deep crisis. Bringing together various groups with contradicting ideologies through public and secret negotiations rendered the opposition ineffective. In the end, the burden of the “table for six” and a crushing defeat ended up on Kılıçdaroğlu’s shoulders.