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Turkey's Opposition Party Gains Political Traction

FILE - Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu addresses his party MPs during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara.
FILE - Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu addresses his party MPs during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

This week across Turkey, hundreds of thousands of members of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, turned out in primaries to choose candidates for June’s general election. The unexpectedly high turnout and enthusiasm for the unprecedented primaries was a widely acknowledged success.

Until now, all political party leaders had selected their candidates.

International relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University said the move, initiated by party chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will have important political consequences.

"It's a very dysfunctional party devoid of any energy or vision, and this way they have rejuvenated the party in two ways," said Ozel.

"One, they have mobilized the membership of the party, and secondly, by so doing, Kilicdaroglu has cleansed the party from all the dead wood, and this is much better of way of doing so, than him deciding single-handedly that he was going to get them out and probably couldn’t," he said.

New blood

More than two dozen parliamentary deputies were not re-elected, many of whom are from the hardline nationalist wing of the center left party. The party has been wracked for more than a decade by deep divisions between reformists and hardliners that analysts say contributed to decades of defeat.

Political scientist Yuksel Taskin of Istanbul’s Marmara University said those who were elected are helping transform the party’s image.

"The CHP needs people who can touch the ordinary people, who are very active and dynamic," said Taskin, descirbing the primaries as a way to "introduce ambitious and young and dynamic people into politics."

"So this is very good, and maybe in some respects quite American style," he added. "And woman tended to more successful than I expected, and general headquarters of the party will use some quota for women as well. So the number of women is expected to increase. The number of young MPs is expected to increase, so these are good signs."

Turkey has one of the lowest women representations in parliament in the world. Kilicdaroglu has pledged that women will be given top positions on election lists. Around a third of the CHP’s candidates could be women in June’s election. Women also have been promoted within the party leadership.

Energizing the party

Analysts say the resounding success in the primaries has consolidated Kilicdaroglu's control of the party, giving him far more freedom to introduce and pursue a reformist agenda.

Until now he had spent much of his time fighting off conspiracies within his party, which has allowed the ruling AK Party, supported by large sections of the media, to portray him in the minds of much of the electorate as weak and indecisive.

Political scientist Taskin said with the CHP being the only party to allow its members to choose its candidates in primaries, it will help to improve its image to the electorate and even steal some of the political clout of the AK Party.

"I believe this is a huge step. If you compare this with other parties of Turkey, they have nothing like primaries," said Taskin. "The CHP will try to give the perception they can repair the democratization process, they also will promote themselves as the only party that can have good relations with all sectors of the country, including Kurds. They will try to repeat AKP's strategy in the 2000s , there is this vacuum., that CHP can try to fill."

Opinion polls show that the CHP still has a political mountain to climb, however, with the ruling AK party enjoying a commanding lead. The same polls indicate that the AK Party is hemorrhaging votes to all of its rivals, though, and that for the first time it could lose its majority.

Analysts say that possibility and the success of the primaries means the AK Party is likely to face a far more formidable opposition than in past elections.