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Turkish Opposition Party Focused on Changing Public Image Before Election

  • Dorian Jones

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Turkey's main opposition People's Republican Party (File Photo)

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Turkey's main opposition People's Republican Party (File Photo)

Turkey's ruling AK party is facing a rejuvenated opposition in this month's general election. Under new leadership, the People's Republican Party, or CHP, has made a political about-face. Discarding its image as a staid pro-statist party, it's now seeking a new identity as an advocate of democracy.

On Tuesday the CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was greeted enthusiastically by thousands of Kurds in Diyarbakir- the largest city in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. Kilicdaroglu used the meeting to stress his party's new image. "We have changed," he said. "This is the new People's Republican Party. We are fighting for a freer Turkey, a more democratic country, and for peace for all our people in the country."

The fact that Kilicdaroglu is even visiting the Kurdish region is a political sea-change. During the last general election campaign, his predecessor Deniz Baykal did not set foot in the region and refused to even respond to the call for greater Kurdish rights.

But under Kilicdaroglu's leadership, the CHP has embraced key demands of the country's Kurdish movement over education, greater autonomy, and electoral reform.

In a Kurdish cafe in Istanbul, his speech is being closely followed. Kilicdaroglu's Diyarbakir speech was cautiously welcomed by one man in the cafe. To him, the surprise with CHP was about their stance against the Kurdish issues. He said they are better than the ruling AKP. Now Kilicdaroglu comes and says he will solve the Kurdish problem. He said he hopes it will be like that, but he will have to wait and see. He said he will vote for the independent Kurdish candidates, but personally if he had another vote he'd vote for CHP.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar says he is cautious about the change in the CHP, but he sees it as an important step. "This first steps are important of course within the party there are still various voices in the party that are adamant against any modern solution to the Kurdish conflict. That being said, while CHP is trying to change the Kurdish issue, the AK ruling party is changing in the wrong direction," he said.

For decades, the CHP, created by the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had the reputation as a party of the state. But to enhance its newly found democratic credentials, the CHP this past weekend unveiled a detailed manifesto for democratic reform, not only for Kurds but also including reforms of the judiciary.

Political columnist of the Turkish daily Milliyet, Semih Idiz, says such reforms may help garner votes across a wider swathe of Turkish society. "There are many people who were looking for a party to be able to vote for. Anybody with slight left leaning social democratic inclination really had no one to vote for in this country," he said.

But, the party is still is struggling to discard its old image. Observers warn Kilicdaroglu still has a political mountain to climb if it wants to dent the Prime Minister's commanding lead in the polls, especially in a time of unprecedented economic growth.