Kemal Kilicdaroglu is Turkey's New Opposition Leader

Old Wine in New Bottles?

Following the resignation of the former CHP Chairman Deniz Baykal, the nationalist opposition is now placing its hopes in Kemal Kilicdaroglu. But is he also committed to a policy makeover for the politically torpid party? Answers from Dieter Sauter

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (photo: AP)
It is not a breath of fresh air that is blowing through the CHP, but rather the heavy fug of days gone by: Does Kilicdaroglu really plan to, and is he in a position to reform the Republican People's Party in the long-term?

​​Did the renewal of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, just begin – or is it already over? How did what began as a "bloodless civil war" (Wall Street Journal) on the party political landscape on the Bosporus actually come to an end?

One did not have to waste any words on the subject, but the lack of an alternative to the governing AKP, the lack of an opposition in parliament is a determinant cause of many shortcomings, anomalies and deficiencies in Turkey. For this reason, many both at home and abroad are placing their faith in a "revamped CHP", a "new Turkish social democracy."

They are focusing their hopes on Kemal Kilicdaroglu. He is 61 years old and has been in politics for decades, serving in various senior roles within the CHP, up to now a loyal party soldier that has in the past allowed himself to be publicly pulled up short by Deniz Baykal, whenever he expressed a view that differed from that of the party leader.

Nevertheless: 1,189 of 1,200 delegates voted for him, although he was only able to stand for election because a few damaging video images (allegedly) recorded in the bedroom of Deniz Baykal landed the former party leader in trouble. There is little doubt that this was a conspiracy hatched within party ranks. Those opposed to the new party leader are now calling him Brutus. Be that as it may, the whole business has left a rather unappealing blot on the copybook of the man who is setting out to revive the party's fortunes.

Phlegm and reform

Many are counting on him in spite of this, because up to this point he is the only person to have presented a serious electoral challenge to the AKP. In local authority elections last year, he raised the CHP's share of the vote in Istanbul from 29 % to 37 %. In the end, the poll was won by incumbent AKP Mayor Kadir Topbas with a margin of just 500,000 votes (in a city where seven million are entitled to vote). CHP delegates are hoping that the new party leader will put an end to the long series of electoral defeats, and this is probably why so many of them switched their allegiances so swiftly.

CHP supporters at a rally in Istanbul (photo: AP)
Following a long series of electoral defeats, supporters of the CHP hope the party can capitalise on the current public desire to see a new credible political opposition

​​The new leader promises that the CHP will win at least 40 % of the vote next time. Such a pledge sounds less utopian when you hear that most respondents to all opinion polls believe the country needs a new credible political force. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is hoping to capitalise on this mood. But how does he plan to do it?

His inaugural address contained no clues. Some 80 % of this speech could have come straight from the mouth of former leader Deniz Baykal: No to a planned constitutional reform, because this is viewed as a way for the AKP to gain control of the justice system, no comment on the power of the military in society, no comment on democracy, freedom of speech and the thousands of lawsuits against journalists – as for the "Kurdish question", this does not exist, just an economically underdeveloped region in south-eastern Turkey.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, his stance on the EU is the same as that of Deniz Baykal: The EU is important in principle, but the bloc treats Turkey so unjustly; as regards the Cyprus conflict, he only criticises voters in the Turkish part of the island when he says that the AKP was responsible for toppling former President Talat.

He says nothing about reconciliation with Armenia. All this is why some critical voices have referred to him as Deniz Kilicdaroglu instead of Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

"The military is the beacon of democracy"

Military parade in Ankara (photo: AP)
A shift to the right within the CHP? It is known that one of the members of the new party executive, Nuran Yildiz, views the military as "the beacon of democracy"

​​More than half of Deniz Baykal's old guard have been displaced within the new party executive, but then again, it is only just over half of them. It is known that one new member of the party executive, Nuran Yildiz, believes that the military is "a beacon of democracy". And critics within the CHP also say that numerous right-leaning nationalists have been appointed to the party executive. This is no breath of fresh air, but the stifling fug of times gone by.

Moreover, the list of candidates for the party executive was not drawn up in a democratic fashion. A vote on a new democratic statute for the party was again postponed – although Kemal Kilicdaroglu did not previously tire of promising new, democratic regulations for the party. And so the disgracefully toppled Deniz Baykal embraced the "new CHP" via mobile phone from his balcony. It must be supported, he said, and many fear that this could be a threat.

Some of those wishing to see a strong opposition to challenge the AKP give the new CHP party leader more credit: It is not as though one can completely change the party from one day to the next, they say. Kilicdaroglu deliberately sidestepped all the especially contentious issues in his speech, and at least the constellation of the new executive is averting the danger of a split within the party.

Promises to make your head spin

It will soon become clear how Kemal Kilicdaroglu is steering the CHP. He has already promised so much (intraparty democracy; bigger pensions: there should be nobody working for the minimum wage in the public sector; a family insurance for all, etc.). The pledges made some dizzy, while others said that while the party executive has changed, Kemal Kilicdaroglu has not.

One of his most important promises was to immediately form a shadow cabinet to counter the AKP government. The new party leader has either singled out a few officials for new jobs and careers, if they back him and the party is to win the elections, or he really does plan to hammer out alternative concepts and proposals in some of the government's key portfolios.

That really would represent something revolutionary and unprecedented. This is why Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said with a smile: So the new CHP boss wants to address the concerns of the people and combat unemployment? If so, then he should just tell us how he's going to do it.

Dieter Sauter

© Qantara.de 2010

From the year 1981, Dieter Sauter filed reports as a freelance journalist for Bavarian Television. Between 1992 and 2005 he was head of the ARD studio in Istanbul, and during this time he produced some 50 documentary films about Iran and Turkey, with more than 10 of those films focusing on Istanbul. Since then, he has been living as a freelance journalist, writer and photographer in Istanbul.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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