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New leader breathes new life into Turkish opposition party

Opinion polls forecast that the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) will get 30% of the vote in Turkey’s elections Sunday. It would not be enough to beat the AKP, but the number indicates that the party is in the midst of a renewal.


They call him “Gandhi Kemal” because of his resemblance to the former Indian leader or the “Mr. Clean” of Turkish politics because of his reputation for fighting corruption. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu (pictured, above), member of parliament since 2002 and the leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party in Turkey, embodies the hopes of a Turkish left in crisis since the 1990s.

On the eve of legislative elections, the politician - who is of Kurdish origin and became head of the party in 2010 - has given himself a simple mission: to reform the party of former Turkish President Ataturk, which has been floundering over the past eight years or so. But it will not be easy for the CHP to challenge the supremacy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s centre-right AKP, which has run Turkey since 2002 and is expected to score around 45 percent of the votes.

“Even if no one doubts that Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP is in a position to secure a third consecutive electoral victory, the rising strength of the CHP puts it in a position to be a true opposition force in Turkish politics,” Alican Tayla, a Turkey specialist from the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), explains.

After a crushing defeat in the 2007 parliamentary elections when the party fell short of even 20 percent of the votes, pollsters now predict that the CHP could get up to 30 percent on Sunday. That result would not only confirm the party’s surge in popularity in Turkey; it would also prevent the AKP from getting the parliamentary “supermajority” (367 out of 550 seats) it needs to rewrite the Turkish constitution without seeking approval of the text by rival parties or public referendum.

‘The Baykal era is over’

The CHP was long viewed as a party unable to evolve while under the 18-year grip of its former leader, Deniz Baykal. “During the era of Deniz Baykal, the CHP established itself as a secular party, but one without any real political or economic programme,” Alican Tayla said. “The CHP had locked itself into a nationalist and militaristic strategy without forming a connection with the people. No one really thought that would change.”

The arrival of Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, a politician viewed as “hardworking” and “close to the people”, at the head of the party was a turning point last year. “His personality without a doubt has played a major role in the CHP’s recent strength,” Tayla said. According to Tayla, Kiliçdaroglu’s main achievement has been the renewal of his party’s policy platform. Radical secularists such as CHP vice president Onur Oymen, who represents a nationalist wing of the party opposed to major economic and political reforms, were (unofficially) nudged aside once Kiliçdaroglu took over.

Today, the CHP is increasing its efforts to break free from its old image of a stagnant entity. One of its main policy proposals for this campaign has been the establishment of “family insurance” – subsidies for the poorest families – intended to attract the working-class electorate that generally supports the AKP.

The party has also recently promised to address demands made by the Kurdish community - a surprising move since only months ago it would have been unthinkable for CHP officials to address the Kurdish question. The CHP’s main goal, however, is to put economic issues front and centre, as Turkey’s unemployment rate is now above 12 percent. “It’s the first time that the theme of rising poverty has made it into the CHP platform,” Tayla noted. “The party is no longer confining itself to ‘identity’ issues like the headscarf, secularism, which were essentially the CHP’s only concerns in the past.”

Youth re-energised

This emphasis on reforms seems to be bearing fruit. Turkish youth, long considered politically inactive, has responded well to the revamped CHP. “Turkey is at a crossroads, and that’s why I wanted to get more involved in politics”, Damla, a young CHP supporter, told FRANCE 24 last week. “I’m very pleased with the new leader and the new CHP.”

But the party still has a long way to go in terms of restructuring itself. “Kemal Kiliçdaroglu’s needs to succeed in getting his party 30 percent of the vote before he can truly establish his authority as CHP head,” explained political scientist and Turkey specialist Dorothée Schmid. “It’s an electoral test for him, and if he doesn’t reach that number he is not guaranteed to remain the leader of the party.”

Despite everything, Kiliçdaroglu believes he will pass the test. At his inauguration in May 2010, “Gandhi Kemal” promised to get 40% of the votes in the 2011 legislative elections. He now has less than twenty four hours left to convince voters.

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