The Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main secular opposition against the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), held its party congress last month, where it reelected Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for the fourth consecutive time. Kılıçdaroğlu – who has lost the last three elections for prime minister – was able to keep his post as party leader, but only six of his sixteen deputy chairs were reelected to the CHP’s 60-seat Party Council. The internal election results suggest that the CHP rank and file, frustrated with the party’s inability to defeat the AKP, is looking to shake up the party leadership. Any such reconfiguration, however, will not suffice to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 13-year rule, which has placed great strain on Turkey’s democracy.
Despite Kılıçdaroğlu’s failure to beat the AKP at the ballot box, analysts give him credit for jumpstarting a lethargic party. In his five-and-a-half-year leadership, the CHP has witnessed a boom in membership, from 750,000 in June 2010 to 1.2 million today. Moreover, unlike Erdogan’s top-down model, Kılıçdaroğlu encourages CHP members to shape the party’s internal politics from the bottom up: the CHP, for example, is the only party currently holding open primaries. In a political landscape characterized by leader-dominated parties, Kılıçdaroğlu deserves credit for a transparent and open system that encourages rigorous debates at the grass roots.
Intra-party democracy, however, does not guarantee results. On the contrary, cut-throat primaries and turf battles at party congresses have forced CHP candidates to cater predominantly to the party’s more ideological, compromise-averse base. This ends up hurting the party’s election prospects, since the CHP’s registered members – those allowed to vote in primaries – tend to lean left of the party’s 12 million voters, and certainly of Turkey’s 55 million voters nationwide. Party candidates therefore tend toward firebrand rhetoric and populist posturing, diminishing their appeal to a Turkish public that is predominantly conservative and right-wing.
One glimmer of hope from the January congress was the election of Selin Sayek Böke, a dynamic economics professor and rising star, to the Party Council’s top spot and her appointment as spokesperson after just 16 months in politics. Her pragmatic ideas for reviving Turkey’s flagging economic growth have reached a wider audience beyond the CHP’s traditional base. Time will tell, however, whether her soft-spoken, no-nonsense style will be audible to voters against the din of her party’s more strident voices.
Despite some advances, the CHP is still short on results. The party came in second in November’s nationwide election, garnering 25 percent of the vote compared to the AKP’s nearly 50 percent. If the opposition party hopes to revive its flagging fortunes, its cadres will have to rise above intra-party squabbles and join in common cause to defeat Erdoğan. Left unchecked, he will continue to consolidate power, to the detriment not just of the CHP but of Turkish democracy itself.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter: @aykan_erdemir