Turkish opposition eyes local elections after loss to Erdogan

Yasar Yakis

As after almost every failure, the opposition parties in Turkiye have already started to blame each other for the defeat they suffered during last month’s general elections. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of a coalition of opposition parties, has said “it is my duty to lead the ship to a safe harbor,” but he did not say why he could not do this in the last elections. In fact, he has lost all 10 elections that he has participated in. Political analysts underline that, in a country where democracy is properly digested, political leaders should step aside if they fail in one or two successive elections. Despite this and despite pressure coming from his party’s hierarchy, Kilicdaroglu seems to be intent on continuing his fight.
In the first round of the presidential election on May 14, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the leading candidate, but by less than half a percent of the votes. In the second round, Erdogan, of the ruling Justice and Development Party, obtained 52.14 percent of the votes versus opposition leader Kilicdaroglu’s 47.86. For now, there are three candidates for the chairmanship of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, which is known as the CHP. One is Kilicdaroglu. The second is Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, who won this position by digging the ground with his fingers. The third is Ozgur Ozel, a young and ambitious member of the party. He has publicly announced that he would not avoid taking on responsibility, adding that he would not hold back from sacrifice either, which means that he will run for the presidency only if Kilicdaroglu supports him.
There is a feeling in Turkiye’s opposition party circles that a sea change has become necessary. So far, only Imamoglu has come up with a structured report and underlined the specific areas where the coalition of opposition parties failed. This report highlighted many failures. Firstly, it stated that the main opposition CHP and its allies could not turn the last election into a referendum for or against Erdogan. Secondly, Erdogan transformed the elections into a choice of whether the electorate should vote for stability or chaos – and the opposition parties watched this from a distance as bystanders. Thirdly, the campaign became an effort to make Kilicdaroglu a candidate for the presidential post, rather than winning the elections. Finally, the opposition parties could not explain to the electorate that continuing with Erdogan would mean the further impoverishment of the Turkish people. On Wednesday last week, Kilicdaroglu and Imamoglu held a two-hour meeting on the outskirts of Ankara. People close to Imamoglu emphasized that radical changes are necessary in the party, while Kilicdaroglu thought that the election of a new chairman had to be postponed until after the local elections that will be held next year. This means Kilicdaroglu is not prepared to leave the leadership of the party until after then at least. The other participants commented that a positive atmosphere dominated the meeting.
There are two opportunities that the willing members of the CHP would like to use to take command of the party. One of them is the party’s general congress. The regular biennial general congress of the CHP was due to be held last year, but it was postponed to this year. The preparatory meetings have to be held at the village – or neighborhood – level, to be followed by the district and then provincial levels. The second is the local elections. This requires at least three months to organize. The municipal elections are expected to be held on March 31, 2024, if there is no decision made to change the date. Therefore, the parties will have to hold their intra-party elections months before so that the new administrations can launch their campaigns.
Opinions are divided as to whether the general congress of the CHP should be held before or after the local elections. If it is held beforehand, Kilicdaroglu may not be reelected, meaning his dream “to lead the ship to a safe harbor” may not materialize. Kilicdaroglu is on the record as saying that he is not opposed to the candidacy of any member of the party, but that the wrong choice should not allow the CHP to lose a major metropolis like Istanbul. The most important thing is to avoid a fight within the party, because such a division may cause a split.
Ozel, the chairman of the CHP’s parliamentary group, clarified his position by emphasizing that he would definitely support any candidate who is designated by Kilicdaroglu. Kilicdaroglu would not want to take a decision that might harm the political party he has been leading for 13 years. However, human beings have their choices. In a democratic environment, people also make mistakes. Therefore, the right way will again be found by intensifying the dialogue.
Another major factor that has to be taken into account is the case of Meral Aksener’s IYI Parti. In last month’s parliamentary elections, this party obtained 9.69 percent of the votes and 44 seats in the parliament. The party made a mistake by withdrawing – for three days – from the six-party opposition coalition. This unwise move caused unease within the party and must have produced a substantive loss of support among the electorate. Erdogan has repeatedly said that, in Turkish elections, the one who gets Istanbul will also get Turkiye. We may presume that he will do everything he can to ensure he does not lose Istanbul in next year’s local elections.