Michael MacKenzie
Jun 25 2018

What’s in store for Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP’s invisible man?

As disappointing as the outcome of the Jun. 24 elections has proven for them, supporters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) held an optimism and enthusiasm going into the elections not seen in a decade.

Their bubble was finally burst on Monday, when the party’s presidential candidate Muharrem İnce gave a noon speech conceding defeat in a contest he said had not been fair, but admitted had been convincingly won by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

İnce’s disappearance late on election night, and the fact he conceded defeat that night via WhatsApp to FoxTV anchor İsmail Küçükkaya without any official statement, evoked distress and a round of conspiracy theories among opposition voters. Ince confessed on Monday during the press conference it had been a mistake to send the WhatsApp message on Sunday night and apologized for it.

The CHP candidate cleared the conspiracy theories up in Monday’s speech, assuring his audience he had been neither abducted nor threatened. It was a subdued speech from the man whose energy and passion in 107 rallies across 65 provinces in just 45 days had injected hope into the voter base of a main opposition party that has not come close to defeating the ruling Justice and Development Party (CHP) since it took power in 2002.

But at least İnce did eventually turn up. And for all the disappointment of seeing their hopes of – at the very least – a run-off contest between their man and Erdoğan melt away on election night, CHP voters can take small consolation in the fact that their candidate plainly outdid the party’s recent performances to receive over 30 percent of the vote.

Not so for CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a main opposition leader who has still at the time of writing not graced the public with a statement on the elections.

The preliminary results place his party’s vote at around 22.5 percent, seemingly due to votes lost to the newly formed nationalist Good Party and tactical voting by CHP voters to keep the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) above the ten percent electoral threshold.

Even so, those figures were not too far below the previous election, where the CHP got around 25 percent, or the 26 percent won in the election before that, or the 23 percent in the 2014 local elections…

Since taking the reins of the CHP in 2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has been a polite and relatively pliant opposition leader standing time and again against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose credentials as a tough leader have earned him an epithet as a “street fighter” in a hundred Turkey analysts’ op-eds.

We must give Kılıçdaroğlu some credit – his style has accumulated some bite in the period since the failed coup attempt of 2016, after which he began to more openly challenge the president, for example bringing to parliament allegations of financial misdeeds by Erdoğan’s family members, who had allegedly spirited large sums of money to the Isle of Man.

Yet his most dynamic move – leading a 450-km mass march for justice from the capital Ankara to Istanbul – was triggered by the arrest of CHP deputy Enis Berberoğlu, an incident largely of Kılıçdaroğlu’s own making. If the CHP leader had followed İnce’s lead to oppose the ruling party’s drive to lift parliamentary immunity, a move designed mainly to allow prosecution of the HDP, Berberoğlu would not have been prosecuted.

And in the end, the fact remains that Kılıçdaroğlu, the man whose job more than anyone’s has been to face Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has not had the spine to show his face since the election.

Eren Erdem, a former CHP deputy for Istanbul, has tweeted a call for Kılıçdaroğlu’s resignation, citing the fact that İnce had in a 45-day campaign broken the 25 percent barrier that had “imprisoned” the party under Kılıçdaroğlu’s 2920-day leadership.

Not that we should forget Erdem’s vested interest – he is both an important figure in İnce’s camp and one who lost the chance for re-election when Kılıçdaroğlu omitted his name from the candidate list.

Yet given the CHP leader’s lacklustre showing during the latest election campaign, his litany of failures preceding it, and the invisible man act he has adopted since, one can imagine many of the party faithful will agree with Erdem.

Kılıçdaroğlu has beaten İnce in leadership contests at the last two CHP party conferences, thanks in large part to his command of the party bureaucracy. But having promised during his concession speech on Monday to continue the fight against Erdoğan, İnce looks to still have his eye on the CHP leader’s seat.

If he challenges, İnce can realistically hope to harness a portion of the enthusiasm he generated throughout his campaign. He would be bringing it to bear against a party bureaucracy that cast 790 votes for Kılıçdaroğlu against his own 447 during the last party conference.

Given the belligerent tone of Erdoğan’s Monday morning victory speech, during which he equated CHP voters with the outlawed Gülen movement accused of plotting the 2016 coup attempt, and given the AKP’s dominance of the Turkish government and state, the CHP must know that now is not the time for a damaging intra-party conflict.

It is up to Kılıçdaroğlu whether he views 22.6 percent in Sunday’s election as another hard-won runner’s up prize, or as a final confirmation that the party under his leadership has stagnated. We will have to wait to and see by his actions what the CHP leader has in mind. But first he has to show his face.

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