The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) chairperson, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is surrounded by journalists during a party group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) in Ankara, Türkiye, June 13, 2023. (AFP Photo)

Lessons from Erdoğan to the Turkish opposition

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) provincial leaders Thursday that his movement wanted to capture opposition-held municipalities, starting with Istanbul and Ankara, in the March 2024 local elections.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) provincial leaders Thursday that his movement wanted to capture opposition-held municipalities, starting with Istanbul and Ankara, in the March 2024 local elections.

Signaling his intention to overhaul the AK Party’s central administration (after the parliamentary caucus and the Cabinet), he said that they were carefully studying the drop in the AK Party’s popular support: “We are aware of the negative turn that our party’s share of the vote has taken. We will swiftly address whatever issues there may be in whichever area. We will acknowledge our mistakes and look for ways to address them. If we need to reinforce our cadres with fresh faces, that is what we’ll do with great diligence.”

As the May 2023 election’s losers – the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party (IP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party/Green Left Party (HDP/YSP) – continue to debate “taking stock” and “change” among themselves, hardly anyone was surprised to see Erdoğan kick off his party’s local election campaign with an extraordinary party congress. In truth, the Turkish leader had identified that target in his victory speech on May 28. That is why it wasn’t surprising for him to declare his intention to save some of Türkiye’s largest cities, which haven’t been served properly in four years, from the CHP mentality.

Opposition in limbo

It was certainly ironic, however, that Erdoğan set aside time to discuss the power struggle within the opposition and offered a lecture on politics. In his speech, he touches on the following points:

  • Unlike the governing party, the opposition cannot interpret the election results accurately.
  • The mayors of opposition-controlled provinces focus on power struggles instead of running those cities. They devote their time and energy to intra-party fights instead of serving the people.
  • The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara wasted three months touring the country, hoping to become vice presidents and completely ignored their respective cities.
  • CHP Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, who were posing like father and son until recently, are now grabbing each other’s throat.
  • The chairs of opposition parties are not in Parliament.
  • The AK Party has already started working in light of the election results.

Change debate

Obviously, President Erdoğan’s comments on the “change” debate within the main opposition CHP will ring alarm bells over there. It was certainly possible to leave the opposition alone. So why did Erdoğan join the “change” debate personally?

Having received the popular mandate to govern for 26 consecutive years, Erdoğan sees politics as a marathon. He had already started his party’s local election campaign. Besides promoting synergy within the People’s Alliance, he has been telling the people about the opposition’s contradictions and mistakes.

In May 2023, the single greatest weakness of the “table for six,” which main opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu put together, was its fragmentation. Ahead of next year’s municipal elections, President Erdoğan stresses that the opposition cannot offer hope to the Turkish people nor agree on anything. At the same time, he warns that the opposition parties might join forces again a little closer to election day.

Erdoğan’s lecture could lead some CHP supporters to think that unduly prolonging the “change” debate might cost them the local elections. Yet the movement remains unlikely to refocus swiftly. After all, the main opposition party witnesses a tug-of-war between some, who argue that they will lose next year’s elections in the absence of change, and others, who say that focusing on change would cost them the election.

That is a dilemma without a way out because both sides make some valid arguments. The CHP cannot reverse its move to embrace right-wing parties. Imamoğlu, who calls for change, also knows that. In truth, the main opposition party needs to win over the HDP (and the YSP, which announced that they would field their mayoral candidates nationwide) to win key mayoral races. Yet hardly anyone has forgotten how the CHP chair embraced the far-right Victory Party (ZP) ahead of the presidential election’s second round.

In other words, ideological change would push the party to the left and place at risk the Nation Alliance. Furthermore, ideological change is a story to which the electorate might be receptive in 2028 – not March 2024. After all, the “change” debate boils down to who will serve as CHP chairperson. Erdoğan kicked off his party’s local election campaign already because he doesn’t believe that the opposition is capable of addressing those contradictions.

[Daily Sabah, July 8, 2023]

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