Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion.
Izmir parliamentary candidate Selin Sayek Boke is one of the new faces of the pro-secular CHP, which, unlike in previous campaigns, is putting its focus on the economy.
"The reason we decided to structure around economic issues to appeal to the larger audiences, regardless of your ethnicity, regardless of your religious belief we all share a common issue, which is all economics," said Sayek Boke.
Sayek Boke is taking her message to small businesses, traditional voters of the ruling AK Party. The CHP is pledging cuts in taxation on diesel and other policies aimed at revitalizing a sluggish economy.
The message appears to be resonating with some traders, many of whom complain about slow business.
Slick campaign messages produced by a leading advertising company are also part of the CHP’s strategy of dispelling its staid pro-secular image.
The CHP’s legacy of being the party of the founder of the secular state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and until recently advocating restrictions on religious practices like wearing religious headscarves, remain an electoral liability, according to Betul Durmaz, a sociology teacher at Izmir's Gediz University.
"CHP is seen as banning some religious practices in Turkey. Sometimes questioning the headscarf in Turkey. For that reason, still some people are not trusting CHP," said Durmaz.
Many CHP publications aim to counter claims by the ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party that it is anti-Muslim, but Izmir, with a large staunchly secular population, is a traditional stronghold for the CHP. Its past hardline secularist polices were popular among many voters here.
Sayek Boke insists its new pluralistic message does not mean it is rejecting its secular roots.
"There is a huge effort to show that by heart, we are a social democratic party. A social democratic party stands equal distance to all beliefs, all ethnicities. And indeed, Turkey has been divided into multiple parts through ethnicity and religion. We would like to actually reconcile this," she said.
In Izmir, Sayek Boke and her fellow candidates are seeking to broaden support from the devoutly religious in Turkey’s population, but at the same time not alienate its base. The success of the CHP in achieving that goal will be key to determining whether it can achieve the electoral breakout it is seeking.