BACKGROUND: Although he first entered parliament in November 2002, it was not until summer 2008 that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu first came to public attention as the deputy chair of the CHP under Deniz Baykal, who had led the party for nearly a decade. Baykal had based his opposition to the AKP on a combination of an often strident Turkish nationalism and accusations that the government was planning to undermine the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution.
Baykal’s strategy ensured that the CHP’s electoral appeal remained restricted. His hectoring Turkish nationalism meant that the CHP was competing for votes not only with the AKP but also with the other main opposition party, the Turkish ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Meanwhile, his defense of the traditional Kemalist opposition to allowing women in headscarves to study at university had limited electoral traction in a country where approximately 70 percent of adult females cover their heads.
Starting in summer 2008, Kılıçdaroğlu began to pursue a different strategy by targeting increasing evidence of widespread corruption and nepotism in the AKP government. In a series of press conferences and television appearances, Kılıçdaroğlu produced documentary evidence to support allegations of graft involving leading members of the AKP. The accusations resonated with the mass of the Turkish population, partly because they were concrete and specific and partly because the AKP had repeatedly – if disingenuously – claimed to have put an end to the corruption and nepotism that had long been endemic in Turkish politics.
The revelations forced the AKP onto the defensive and propelled Kılıçdaroğlu to national prominence. Encouraged by Kılıçdaroğlu’s public popularity, the CHP named him as the party’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul in the March 2009 local elections. Even though Kılıçdaroğlu failed to defeat the incumbent, he nevertheless succeeded in increasing the CHP’s vote to 37.0 percent, compared with 28.4 percent in the previous election in 2004.
When Baykal was unexpectedly forced to resign on May 10, 2010, following the broadcast of a sex tape on the internet, Kılıçdaroğlu immediately became the favorite to succeed him. Indeed, after years in which Baykal had purged from the CHP any potential rivals to his leadership, Kılıçdaroğlu was the only member of the party who was both popular and had a high public profile.
IMPLICATIONS: In his acceptance speech after being elected CHP leader, Kılıçdaroğlu combined pithy attacks on the AKP – particularly the personal wealth leading members have acquired since taking office – with a string of policy promises reminiscent of the statist, social democratic platform adopted by Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006) who led the CHP during the 1970s. To emphasize what he presented as a return to the CHP’s roots, Kılıçdaroğlu concluded his speech by donning the peaked cap worn by Ecevit during campaign rallies.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s donning of Ecevit’s peaked cap triggered a roar of approval from the delegates to the congress. But, beyond its impact as a piece of political theater, the gesture was misleading; not least because, throughout the vast majority of its nearly 90-year history, the CHP has been far from a social democratic party. Perhaps more insidiously, the gesture also immediately portrayed Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP as a party which was looking to the past rather than to the future. In addition, for an electorate used to politicians – such as Erdoğan – building their careers on a sense of political machismo, there was something unsettling about the way that Kılıçdaroğlu was handed the cap by one of his entourage rather seizing it for himself; an impression which was reinforced by the almost sheepish smile with which he wore it.
As the first wave of enthusiasm began to subside, the doubts about whether Kılıçdaroğlu had the political weight and acumen to challenge the AKP started to increase. The first obstacle facing new leaders of political parties in Turkey is that all of the leading positions – and, in the CHP’s case, most of its seats in parliament – are occupied by those appointed by their predecessors; to whom they are not only personally loyal but whose political preferences they tend to share. At the party congress of May 22, 2010, Kılıçdaroğlu was able to remove many of the Baykal diehards from the CHP’s National Executive Committee. But the parliamentary group remains dominated by MPs who were handpicked by Baykal. As a result, Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempts to transform the CHP have meant that, particularly when it comes to its parliamentarians, he is effectively having to reinvent the party despite the party.
The task facing Kılıçdaroğlu was graphically illustrated on October 1, 2010, when President Abdullah Gül delivered the inaugural address to mark the reopening of parliament after its summer recess. In his speech, Gül called for greater freedoms and implicitly criticized the AKP for its increasing politicization of judicial processes. When Gül had finished, Kılıçdaroğlu led a standing ovation from the CHP, while Baykal and his closest supporters in the parliamentary party remained firmly rooted in their seats.
Although the incident demonstrated the divisions in the parliamentary group, it is less clear where Kılıçdaroğlu wants to take the CHP. He has not followed up the vague promises made at the May 2010 party congress with detailed policy proposals. Indeed, many of his public statements have appeared closer to platitudes than policy. He has called for a new constitution but failed to list what he expects it to contain. He has committed the CHP to lifting the headscarf ban on students in universities but not explained how; and still appears opposed to allowing covered women to work in the public sector. Although he travelled to Brussels on September 16, 2010, his attitude towards Turkey’s EU accession process appears ambivalent to the point of confusion.
Perhaps more critically, Kılıçdaroğlu has yet to establish an infrastructure of policy-making expertise within the CHP. It is still unclear not only what the CHP would do if it ever came to power, but who would be responsible for the implementation of policy in key areas such as the economy, foreign affairs, education and security.
Doubts about Kılıçdaroğlu’s managerial skills and political acumen were reinforced by the CHP’s campaign against the AKP’s proposed constitutional reforms which were put to a referendum on September 12, 2010. During interviews with the Turkish press, Kılıçdaroğlu frequently complained that the Turkish electorate remained poorly informed about the content of the proposed amendments. Yet, during its campaign against the reforms, the CHP singularly failed to redress the deficit. On the eve of the referendum, opinion polls suggested that 46 percent of the Turkish electoral still could not name one of the proposed changes. Instead of informing the public, Kılıçdaroğlu allowed himself to be dragged into a name-calling contest with the AKP; something at which the considerably more brutal Erdoğan excels.
Fears that, far from representing a credible alternative to the AKP and despite his personal honesty and affable nature, Kılıçdaroğlu was out of his political depth as CHP leader reached a denouement on the evening of September 12 when it emerged that Kılıçdaroğlu had been unable to vote in the referendum after forgetting to transfer his voter registration from Istanbul to Ankara.
CONCLUSIONS: During his almost ten years as leader of the CHP, Baykal’s personal unpopularity and tight grip on the party machinery had meant that he often appeared as unelectable as prime minister as he was irremovable as party leader. His unexpected resignation cleared the way for a new leader and generated hopes of an emergence of a credible alternative to the AKP. Since he was elected, Kılıçdaroğlu has undoubtedly redefined the Turkish political landscape. He has moved the CHP away from the Turkish nationalism espoused by Baykal and positioned the party to target the government on its social and economic policies in an attempt to make inroads into the AKP’s strong support base amongst the most impoverished section of Turkish society. In the process, Kılıçdaroğlu has left the MHP and the AKP to battle between themselves for electors who combine a strong sense of personal piety and Muslim identity with Turkish nationalist sentiments.
Yet, if Kılıçdaroğlu’s election has helped clarify the battle lines between the political parties in Turkey, the identity of the CHP under his leadership still remains unclear. His inability to formulate a coherent strategy and create a strong policy-making team has made it extremely difficult to understand what the new CHP stands for; except by trying to string together isolated, and often disparate, comments made by Kılıçdaroğlu in conversation with members of the Turkish media. With the next general election not due until early June 2011, there is still time for Kılıçdaroğlu to put together a cohesive policy platform and mount an effective challenge to the AKP. But the signs to date are not encouraging. At the moment at least, there is a real danger that the confusion over the direction in which the CHP is heading could see Kılıçdaroğlu lose the support of hard-line Kemalists without attracting new supporters by creating a convincing alternative vision.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".