A sex scandal has produced a political shakeup in Turkey that has the potential to alter the country’s electoral landscape.
The scandal came as a result of the online posting in early May of hidden camera footage that purported to show Deniz Baykal, until recently the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), having a sexual encounter with his former secretary.
Baykal, who had controlled the party since 1992 but who had seemed completely unable to score any political victories against the ruling liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP or AK Party), resigned soon after the footage was released. His departure led to Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s appointment as the new CHP leader. A former civil servant, Kilicdaroglu has a reputation of being so mild mannered – a quality not usually found among top-ranking Turkish politicians – that he has earned the nickname “Gandhi.”
Under Baykal’s leadership, the center-left CHP had fallen into a rejectionist rut colored with a streak of nationalism, standing for little beyond being against whatever the AKP was for, even if that included liberalizing reforms. Although it’s still early, the emergence of Kilicdaroglu is fostering hope that the CHP can develop into a counterweight to the AKP, something that analysts say is essential for the long-term health of the Turkish political system.
“Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are less comfortable today than they were before the weekend. It is clear that the CHP in its present formation has the potential to become a real ‘main opposition party’ that has its sights set on victory at the polls,” Semih Idiz, a columnist for the daily Milliyet wrote after Kilicdaroglu’s appointment at a CHP national convention in late May.
Kilicdaroglu, 62, crafted an image as something of a reform crusader during Turkey’s 2009 local elections, when he ran for mayor of Istanbul, focusing his campaign on the need for good governance and a reduction of corruption. Although he came in second, with 38 percent of the vote, his total was 10 points higher than the CHP’s return in the previous election.
An Alevi Kurd from humble origins in Turkey’s east, Kilicdaroglu is going after the AKP on the national stage employing a similar strategy he used in Istanbul – accusing the ruling party of losing touch with the common man and of becoming corrupt. “They stay in seven-star hotels and houses with swimming pools and use jeeps. One private plane remains insufficient, and he [Erdogan] buys a second. Their children study in the United States, sponsored by businessmen, but they still play the victim,” Kilicdaroglu said during his convention speech.
“The CHP was long criticized as being a party which represents elites in Turkey. The recent convention showed that this is not true, because there was an incredible support from different sections of the population, such as workers, craftsmen, farmers, employees, etc.,” says Didem Engin, one of the new members of the CHP’s Party Council, which Kilicdaroglu purged of several Baykal loyalists.
“I can’t compare Mr. Baykal and Mr. Kilicdaroglu. But Mr. Kilicdaroglu is a leader who is close to the public, and in his speech at the convention he said he gives priority to social policies, fight against unemployment and poverty,” she says.
With Turkey’s unemployment rate currently standing at almost 15 percent, some observers suggest that Kilicdaroglu’s strategy could hit the government where it hurts.
“How nervous should the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) be? They certainly cannot be complacent,” Andrew Finkel, a columnist for the daily Today’s Zaman, recently wrote.
“[Kilicdaroglu] promises a lower key, but more effective strategy. He will not attack the AK Party’s right to exist, but rather attempt to make voters feel dissatisfied with their performance. He will go after the AK Party where they are vulnerable -- on subjects like corruption or unemployment -- and try to make the electorate feel that the government has grown fat and lost touch.”
Erdogan, speaking to his party members in parliament on May 25, dismissed Kilicdaroglu as still representing the CHP status quo. “Paint tin as gold as you want, but tin is still tin,” Erdogan said, adding that the new opposition leader’s rise was nothing more than a product of media “headlines.”
Echoing Erdogan, Turkey’s pro-government press also portrayed Kilicdaroglu’s appointment as a continuation of the Baykal era, with headlines such as “The CHP changed its leader but the rhetoric is the same,” “New leader, old vision,” and “Who’s pulling Kilicdaroglu’s strings?”
Emre Erdogan, who runs the Infakto Research Workshop, an Istanbul-based polling firm, says attacking the government on corruption and economic issues alone may not be enough if Kilicdaroglu wants to revive the CHP as a viable electoral alternative. “There will be a small difference for the party with Kilicdaroglu, but for there to be a big difference they need to convince people that they can do a better job, that they are open to religious issues and identity issues,” he says. “It’s not a simple task. They need to compete head-to-head with a very well organized mechanism called the AK Party.”
More than defeating the AKP at the polls, some analysts say Kilicdaroglu’s real work is to turn the CHP into a political force that could balance a Turkish political system that has been without a true opposition party, particularly a liberal one, for eight years.
“The real issue is not to get rid of he AKP on the basis of corruption charges, but to create real, credible new Social Democrat Party,” says Ali Carkoglu, a professor of political science and an expert on Turkish voting patterns at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.
“Having a credible social democratic opposition will enable Turkey, in the long run, to actually develop a more tolerant, trusting, and secure social environment. It doesn’t have to come to power. It just needs to provide a credible opposition.”
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Kebabistan blog.