Turkey’s opposition must strive not to repeat history after nepotism scandal hits

Turkey’s secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) scored stunning successes at local elections this year, but with some of its municipalities already embroiled in scandal, the leadership fears a repeat of a previous episode when a great advantage was squandered.

The year was 1989, and the CHP at that time was still closed after the military coup nine years before. In its place was the Social Democratic People’s Party (SHP), which was running against the ruling Motherland Party (ANAP) in local elections that bore striking similarities to those held this year.

ANAP’s campaign included wall-to-wall advertising depicting a seated man with his hands bound – a clear warning to voters that opposition candidates would face severe constrictions if elected.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan echoed precisely that sentiment almost 30 years later, warning voters that if the opposition mayoral candidates won in this year’s local elections they would end up as lame ducks.

Just as the voters were unmoved by Erdoğan’s threats this year, voting in opposition mayors in five of the country’s six largest cities, ANAP’s campaign was ineffective, and the SHP’s share of the vote skyrocketed.

Yet the gains in 1989 ultimately led to great disappointment – so much so that CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been frequently warning his party to act carefully “to avoid the trauma of 1989”. 

Kılıçdaroğlu was referring to the series of mishaps, failures and blunders that led the SHP from a commanding position in 1989 to lose almost every one of its municipalities in a rout in 1994. That was the year that Erdoğan came to prominence, becoming mayor of Istanbul with the AKP’s Islamist precursor the Welfare Party, which also took the capital city. 

The victories in those local elections also served as a springboard that would bring the AKP to power in 2002, and keep the party in power without interruption in the 17 years since.

One of the main factors leading to the SHP’s trauma was the huge scandal evoked by the discovery of corruption and bribery in Istanbul’s Water and Sewerage Administration (İSKİ). 

The discovery that İSKİ general manager Ergun Göknel had been involved in a bribery and corruption organisation that was using front companies to hide money also overshadowed many SHP mayors, including the successful Mayor of Ankara Murat Karayalçın. 

The successes of 1989 had won the SHP second place and partnership in a coalition government with Süleyman Demirel’s True Path Party in the November 1991 general elections. 

But it did not take long for Erdal İnönü’s SHP to begin its blunders after that election. The first SHP minister to go was Güler İleri, who had been charged with the portfolio for women and family. 

İleri was forced to resign in February 1992 after it was discovered that she had claimed money to pay for her family’s expenses and her father’s funeral on her personal expense account.

It is already clear that Kılıçdaroğlu’s worries are not in vain. Just four months after the elections, a series of news reports have been published pointing to nepotism and cronyism in CHP municipalities.

The reports concern appointments to positions in the municipalities or in their subsidiary companies that have gone, together with their hefty salary packages, to friends and family of CHP politicians.

A high concentration of these reports have come from the CHP’s stronghold city of Izmir, where a series of appointments in which CHP deputy chair Tuncay Özkan had a large influence have been embroiled in scandal. 

Pro-government newspaper’s front pages have been covered with headlines of CHP mayors in Izmir’s Karaburun, Torbalı and Menderes districts and their distribution of high-paying jobs and other sources of income to people close to them.

Kılıçdaroğlu moved swiftly after the elections to pen a seven-item list of ethical principles to be hung in every mayor’s office. That the corruption allegations have surfaced before the ink has even dried has left the AKP with a prime weapon to use against the opposition.

No matter how much the CHP leader personally intervenes in the scandal to demand resignations or overturn suspicious deals, the pro-government media’s campaign against the main opposition party has already dealt a blow to the CHP, drawing first blood.

The CHP moved to mitigate the damage, with Seyit Torun, the deputy leader heading local administrations, ordering every person whose appointment raised suspicions of nepotism to be immediately dismissed. At the same time, CHP deputy Özgür Özel brought a bill to parliament to legislate against nepotism in local administrations.

The AKP itself has indulged in all manner of nepotism, cronyism and favouritism throughout its decades in power, during which supporters have become enriched beyond their wildest dreams through public projects.

Yet for the CHP, which has spent years criticising these practices, to engage in them as soon as it tasted success at the ballot box, is more than a little problematic.

Now the party has to keep tight control of its mayors on the one hand and strive to keep alive the hopes generated by its election wins, while also facing potential disruption at the upcoming party congress, which could bring a leadership contest.

Kılıçdaroğlu has insisted that the congress go ahead as scheduled, despite his deputies’ suggestion to postpone it for one year in light of the possibility of snap elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu is currently riding high on the party’s successes at the local elections, and opposition to his leadership is low. But that does not mean the congress is sure to pass without him facing a challenger.

The party’s deputy leader in charge of organisations, Oğuz Kaan Salıcı, and Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu, are at the helm of a movement that aims to pull the party to the left and form an alliance with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Another group that could oppose Kılıçdaroğlu centres around Muharrem İnce, the CHP’s candidate during last year’s presidential election, who has already challenged Kılıçdaroğlu for the party leadership twice before.

İnce managed to whip up a lot of excitement during his campaign in 2018, but his bid on election day was beset by serious tactical errors, including the use of a vote-tracking app that simply did not work. İnce’s long disappearance that night until he sent his declaration of defeat to a journalist via text compounded the damage to his status.

A fourth faction that could challenge Kılıçdaroğlu has formed around party stalwarts Selin Sayek Böke and İlhan Cihaner, who come from the party’s social democratic left wing.

The four groups are set for a power struggle as they compete for more congress delegates and try to gain dominance in the party assembly, which determines party policy. With the party congress approaching, the factions could well forge alliances to present joint lists of candidates for the assembly.

Salıcı, İnce, Böke or Tuncay Özkan could all stand against Kılıçdaroğlu at the party congress. If there is a leadership contest this time, though, there could well be an agreement between several factions to run a joint candidate against the current leader.