The discontent over Turkish opposition candidates and intra-party democracy

Turkey’s political parties have now submitted their lists of candidates for June 24 parliamentary elections, but the leftist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) caused most debate and disappointment with its nominees to stand in the polls, a likely price for having had some degree of intra-party democracy that others lack.

By any measure intra-party democracy is weak in Turkey. The party leadership determines who runs for each party at the provincial and district level and who the candidates are in parliamentary and municipal elections. Party loyalty tends to be high and leadership change is difficult, even after leaders have lost multiple general elections. 

Parties are more likely to split than change a leader. A case in point is that of the centre-right nationalist Good Party, founded in October last year by dissenters within the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) after they failed to unseat its 70-year-old leader, Devlet Bahçeli, who has led the far-right party since 1997 and never won a general election.

The CHP has consistently come second in general elections since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 and, according to opinion polls, is likely to achieve the same result again. The presidential polls on the same day are key however as whoever wins that election will take on new executive powers. CHP presidential candidate Muharrem Ince is also running second behind Erdoğan in opinion polls, but could collect the votes of other opposition supporters if it goes to a second-round run off.

Before the June 2015 parliamentary polls, the CHP conducted preliminary elections in 45 of the 85 electoral districts to determine who should be its candidates. This was an under-appreciated innovation towards intra-party democracy and devolving decision-making. It was not perfect, of course, because the local organisations were also controlled by the headquarters. But voter reception of the candidates shows it did make a difference. 

But many current parliamentarians, selected as candidates through primaries, have not been included in the party lists for the forthcoming elections. Individuals from a number of provinces have protested that candidates in their districts and with local support bases had been sidelined. The move was seen as a case of the party’s leadership brushing aside and ignoring local preferences. Local discontent over party candidate lists is not new, but the extent and strength of protests against the CHP list is rather novel.

The discontent centres around key CHP members of parliament who were excluded from the list of candidates, such as Eren Erdem, Yıldız Tur Biçer, Barış Yarkadaş and Ilhan Cihaner.  

These parliamentarians have generated a personal following with their vocal commentary and activism. Eren Erdem, for example, has used social media effectively to generate a following. Yıldız Tur Biçer is remembered for reporting on social media news about recruits who got food poisoning at a military base in Manisa, the western province she represents.  

Their supporters are now voicing their discontent, which is quite new in a political system where the constituency typically votes for the party and the party list, not individual candidates.

The CHP has multiple identities and includes progressives, traditional nationalists and conservatively secularists among its voters. The party was able to field a presidential candidate who won the approval of all of these groups and Ince has been able to galvanize the constituency and inject excitement and hope into the campaign. Unfortunately, the CHP candidate list is about to quell that fire, which is an ongoing pattern with the party.

The MP candidate list renewed the clash of these identities again with each group blaming the other for the exclusion of their preferred candidates. Various cliques are denounced and held responsible for the exclusions. Some of the objections are misguided or misplaced. There are commentators who have said a big mistake had been made by discounting the left wing of the party and declared they would vote for Good Party instead.

I believe the CHP would have continued to hold primary elections if it had had more time before the snap elections. At the very least, the primaries would have energised the party grassroots just like the campaign to collect signatures for opposition presidential candidates. But with elections only a month away, the only option was for the party leadership to nominate candidates. All parties did the same, but the CHP list received the most vocal criticism because it is the party where vocally challenging the party leadership will likely not land the challengers in trouble or oblige them to establish a new party.

My own discontent about the CHP list is twofold: First, the ratio of women candidates is very low; only 137 women are on the list of 600 candidates. 

Secondly, 79-year-old former CHP leader Deniz Baykal, the symbol of CHP’s rigidity, is top of the party’s list in the southern province of Antalya. If there are no strategic considerations related to his position as parliamentary speaker, it is a mistake to list a person in such ill health as Baykal. 

The CHP is likely to lose voters to the pro-Kurdish and pro-minorities Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on the left and to the Good Party on the right. For die-hard CHP supporters, what makes most sense at this point is to stop mulling over the candidates and start campaigning for the party. The reality of the Turkish political system has not changed: It is a party-centered system, individual MP candidates do not matter, the party does.

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