Kılıçdaroğlu and İnce: An odd couple facing a tough task

Who is the head of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and what does he want?

That might sound like a question with an obvious answer: His name is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, his party is going into elections on June 24, and he ideally would like the party, as well as its presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, to poll as well as possible.

Yet the party’s leaders have never responded well to upstart rivals – past party conventions have not infrequently descended into fistfights between factions – and that is exactly what İnce is: in February he launched a failed bid to challenge Kılıçdaroğlu for the leadership.

One might well ask why Kılıçdaroğlu did not stand for the presidency himself. Two good reasons come to mind: First, his own popularity is too low among the electorate and barring a big shift in attitudes, he might well have weathered the relative humiliation of being beaten to second place in the presidential poll by nationalist candidate Meral Akşener. And second, presidential candidates are unable to stand on their party’s parliamentary lists – so should he fail to beat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as he almost certainly would, he would be left outside parliament and vulnerable to further political challenges from within the party.

So did he nominate a big beast political rival whose media presentation skills needed work to contest the presidency in order to win it or in order to lose it?

If İnce does not win the position, he will likely become politically irrelevant from outside parliament. Many of the clique of parliamentarians who voted for him in the leadership election have meanwhile been deselected as party candidates. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will have eliminated a faction of dissenters and consolidated his power over the party.

At this stage, with the polls sliding gradually in İnce’s favour, it will surely be crossing Kılıçdaroğlu’s mind that he soon could be working under President Muharrem İnce. Only he and a few confidantes must know how he feels about that.

For İnce’s part, he has been distancing himself more and more from Kılıçdaroğlu. First he announced that he would be campaigning largely as an independent candidate, and later he cancelled a series of rallies at which the pair were due to be appearing together, saying that he wished his candidacy to be more inclusive and less dependent on the party.

This is shrewd politics in itself, as the soft-spoken Kılıçdaroğlu and his party still represent to many voters the vestiges of an unpleasant, intolerant, and corrupt set of governments left over from the post-1980 coup era – despite including conservatives from the Milli Görüş movement and a prominent founder-member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on their parliamentary lists. 

İnce, meanwhile, has been engaged in a series of rapid attempts to detoxify his brand among conservatives, from including prayers for martyred Turkish soldiers in his rally repertoire to making a bit of a social media star out of his doting headscarved mother. And there seems to be a market for this: many former AKP voters have lost their faith in that party and yet also see the CHP as inherently hostile to the kinds of lives they want to live. Nor have İnce’s moderate overtures to the Kurds so far seemed to damage his reputation with his party’s base.

So far, Erdoğan has played his incredibly strong hand in a lackluster manner, allowing his opponents to set the narrative in a way that has not happened at previous elections. But he is now in the enviable position of not even having to do any spin doctoring for himself – whatever the issue and whatever the facts, almost the entirety of the mainstream media is now devoted to portraying him as right, wise, and good. 

In order to avoid the pitfalls ahead of them as we enter the final three weeks of the campaign, İnce and Kılıçdaroğlu are going to have to put on a flawless strategic performance, dotting their campaigns with enough novelty to keep setting the agenda while not showing any signs of weakness that could be jumped upon by the entire segment of society that now believes it owes its position to the continuation of the present government. 

In order to do that, and as painful as it may be, they will both need to cover one another’s backs in the hope of a happy ending whilst also keeping their distance from one another.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.