Turkey: Opposition’s Leadership Change Creates New Challenge For AKP – OpEd


By Yasar Yakis

Turkiye’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, which is known as the CHP, last week achieved a major breakthrough by removing long-time leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He had resisted for a long time, determined to maintain his position, because senior members of his party insisted that he should not give up.

When it became clear that Kilicdaroglu was going to lose, he hesitated in conceding the race and letting Ozgur Ozel, 48, run for the CHP’s chairmanship unopposed. Such an attitude would have made him a hero, but apparently his entourage prevented him from taking such a reasonable course of action.

The party congress unfolded smoothly, with few exceptions. The two competing candidates for the leadership were seated in the congress hall next to each other, accompanied by their wives. There were two other candidates, but they were not able to gather a sufficient number of votes to be eligible for the presidency.

During his 13-year tenure, Kilicdaroglu lost 14 elections, including municipal votes. He did not win any of the elections he participated in. Each time he had promised the public that he would guide the CHP’s boat to a safe harbor. Before last week’s election, he repeated that this time he would relinquish his post and retire, but he could not do it.

In his speech, he claimed that he was stabbed in his back, hinting at what Meral Aksener of the IYI Party had done by overthrowing the famous “Table of Six” before the general elections of May this year. 

The new chairman of the CHP is Ozel, a pharmacist by profession. He has spent most of his career involved in politics. Two years after his graduation from Ege University’s Faculty of Pharmaceuticals, he became the secretary-general of the Chamber of Pharmacists of his province and then the president of the chamber. He was also active in international professional organizations. In 2011, he became a member of parliament. In other words, unlike Kilicdaroglu, who spent an important part of his career as a bureaucrat, Ozel has always been active in politics.

During last week’s CHP congress, Ozel made an emphatic statement. We can expect that this statement may give a new lease of life to the party. He may even have slightly shaken President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP party. “Transformation in the party” is a slogan Ozel has been using since the early stages of his political career. This also applies to the transformation of the membership in various organs of the party.

The CHP congress unfolded smoothly thanks to Ozel’s due respect for his former boss and the skillful approach of Ekrem Imamoglu, the metropolitan mayor of Istanbul, who chaired the event. Tensions did not rise because of their tactful attitude. Everybody admitted that there was a need for change in the party.

The Turkish electorate has a habit of moving slowly. Ozel should therefore avoid rushing for a quick success. However, the atmosphere is suitable after 23 years of AKP rule. The forthcoming local elections, to be held on March 31 next year, will probably add new dynamism to Turkiye’s political life.

President Erdogan, with his wide experience in politics that goes back to the 1990s, is also preparing for the local elections. He must be aware of the implications of the leadership change in the main opposition party. He has greater means to distribute favors to the electorate.

Turkiye’s notorious Kurdish problem will arise again during the forthcoming elections. Because of Kilicdaroglu’s Alawite affiliation, Erdogan will probably use this question for electoral purposes. This is a sensitive issue that any political leader has to avoid. Ozel will probably not let Erdogan’s government further alienate the Kurdish electorate. 

Another important issue is the relationship between Ozel and Imamoglu. The interests of these two important political figures may collide at some stage. Their best bet would be a fair share between the two, with one aiming for the presidency and the other for the post of prime minister once it is reinstated.

The CHP electorate was disappointed with the result of the general elections held in May. They also hold Kilicdaroglu responsible for his failure last week. The party did not make a convincing self-criticism after the May elections. Most of the members of the various bodies of the party were people who were appointed by Kilicdaroglu. Therefore, they were not expected to unseat the leader that appointed them. This dilemma was resolved by the strong opposition of the other delegates who participated in the party congress.

Several members of the CHP’s core electorate turned away from the party because of the trauma they suffered as a result of Erdogan’s most recent victory. We may therefore expect that political life will become livelier in the run-up to the local elections.

As soon as the membership of the CHP’s various party organs takes shape, priority will be given to the amendments to be made to the party’s statutes. An amendment to the statutes was a promise made by Ozel several years ago. He said that the new statutes would be inspired by the best practices in the world. Instead of letting certain designated members of various party boards elect the chairman, he plans to let all members of the party directly elect the chairman. Such a practice might create several complications, but Ozel will probably design a process open to evolution.

Politics is a business full of opportunities and disappointments. Ozel’s performance will tell us to what extent he will be able to move ahead in Turkiye’s democracy.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.

Arab News

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