Gallery of portraits: The CHP leadership candidates

This weekend, Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) may be set to elect a new leader at its general congress on Feb. 3–4, as well as a new party council.

The party’s leadership depicts these elections as a sign of the party’s strong embrace of democracy. The positions are contested, but the system favours the incumbents, and any hopes of a leadership change revitalising the party’s base and making it a serious challenger for power are slim – even if the 2019 elections are carried out on a freer and fairer basis than last year’s constitutional referendum.

No surprises are expected as far as leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's reelection is concerned. Kılıçdaroğlu won the post in 2010 after his predecessor Deniz Baykal resigned over a leaked video of an extramarital affair.

While Kılıçdaroğlu might never have come close to winning power in the three general elections since then, he has clung tightly to the CHP leadership. Sources within the party point out that party delegates remain "faithful" to Kılıçdaroğlu, not out of personal conviction, but political interests. In the end, this is a two-way street – Kılıçdaroğlu ensures that the delegates remain in power and the delegates do the same for him. But that does not mean that the party is free from internal distress.

The main reason for the intra-CHP discontent is Kılıçdaroğlu's perceived lack of charisma. While his main rival, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is every bit the alpha male, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have become more his stress ball than a dangerous rival. When Kılıçdaroğlu first came to power in CHP, his bespectacled mild mannerism and seemingly endless patience earned him the nickname "Gandhi". But Kılıçdaroğlu did not gain much in the way of transformative soft power. Instead, he gave off an aura more consistent with his background as a bureaucrat.

Upon graduating from the Ankara Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences in 1971, Kılıçdaroğlu started his career as a civil servant. He became an account specialist at the Ministry of Finance; and slowly but securely, climbed up the ladder to lead the Ministry's Revenues Department by 1983. He made his bureaucratic debut as director-general of the Social Security Organisation for the Artisans and Self-Employed (Bağ-Kur) in 1991. Finally, he assumed the position of director-general of the Social Security Organisation (SSK) itself. In 1994, he earned his bureaucratic Oscar as Civil Servant of the Year, selected by the weekly magazine Ekonomik Trend.

After becoming a pensioner in 1999, Kılıçdaroğlu decided to dive into the world of politics; and since then there has been an expectancy of political stardom that he has never been able to fulfil. In the 1999 general elections, some said he could be the revitalising spirit of Bülent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party, but Kılıçdaroğlu was not listed as a candidate. His actual entry into politics was instead secured by Deniz Baykal, and he entered the parliament as a CHP deputy for Istanbul in 2002. Nowadays, it is completely forgotten but in his early days at the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu gained a reputation for toughness, forcing some top AKP officials to resign from their party posts due to corruption allegations. But, over time, the AKP grew resilient to corruption allegations and Kılıçdaroğlu less crafty in confronting the AKP on all fronts.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s Achilles heel has proven to be his unyielding fidelity to the state. If he perceives an issue to be "of state interest", he stubbornly embraces the policy despite its political costs. But of course, it is a matter of political nous to be able to discern true state interests from what is embellished by political rivals as state interests.

The archetypical example is his support for the lifting of parliamentary immunity for members of parliament: Kılıçdaroğlu pushed his party to support this AKP move despite the fact that he believed it was anti-constitutional. Now more than a dozen parliamentarians are jailed after having been stripped of their immunities, including a CHP deputy. There is recurring talk of Kılıçdaroğlu himself facing a jail term.

Hence, when facing a choice between freedoms and security, Kılıçdaroğlu has always opted for security. He is said to be have branded (in personal talks) the violent state suppression of the Alevi rebellion in Dersim/Tunceli in 1937-38, as "just" – despite some of his own ancestors having perished there.

In this summer's Justice March, which seemed to energize the other 50 percent; meaning non-AKP supporters, Kılıçdaroğlu briefly had his Gandhi-moment again – only to be eclipsed once again by his sterility as a leader.

All in all, there is tangible discontent within the party in CHP and the voting base, but no change is in the air.  

Kılıçdaroğlu's main rival, Muharrem İnce, is a former deputy group chairman for the party, and he ran for the chairmanship against Kılıçdaroğlu in the party's 2014 congress. 740 delegates voted for Kılıçdaroğlu and 415 for İnce; a result similar to that expected this time around. İnce is regarded as a charismatic leader; retaining his populist appeal with his man of the people style, swift organizational skills and stamina as a politician. He somehow strikes a chord with the CHP base (and probably beyond) with his laid-back, tough-guy style. What he lacks is a clear ideological platform and the support of the CHP party bureaucracy – meaning the delegates who will be voting in the race.

The two other candidates are the former Istanbul Bar Association Chair Ümit Kocasakal and Ömer Faruk Eminağaoğlu, a previous head of the Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV). Kocasakal is a high profile ultra-nationalist; and should he be elected, the party would move to a staunchly illiberal understanding of Kemalism. Kocasakal launched his bid by declaring “my candidacy as a soldier of Mustafa Kemal. Some people do not understand what being a soldier of Mustafa Kemal constitutes". He also says the CHP is “not globalist; it is nationalist”.

An unofficial challenge to Kılıçdaroğlu is seemingly coming from the ideologically polar opposite camp from Kocasakal: globalist and progressive intra-party opposition by Selin Sayek Böke. A former World Bank economist and an academic with strong credentials, Böke made a surprise move into politics in 2015 as a CHP deputy head and İzmir MP. She later resigned, questioning the ideological stance of the party and the quality of inner party democracy. Böke has long been a target of the pro-AKP media as her father was a Christian Arab from the multicultural Antakya region.

Just before the party congress, Böke and supporters published a "social democratic and pro-rights and freedoms manifesto".  And though Böke is not running a candidate for general secretary, she seems to be the real main opposition within the main opposition party.

As for the congress itself, the biggest possibility for change may be changes in the party's administrative roles, and at best, the introduction of more exciting names than the usual political bureaucracy stifling the CHP. But those kinds of changes need to be approved by the leader-elect, which will almost certainly again be Kılıçdaroğlu. So, the CHP may very well go on running in circles while torn between xenophobic-reactionary and globalist-progressive camps, always ending up as easy prey for the AKP.