Türkiye is heading towards local elections set for March 31, 2024, approximately 6 months later. After President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his conservative/nationalist bloc’s decisive victory in the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, the secular opposition in Türkiye is now very weak, fragmented, and fragile. On the other hand, since this will be President Erdoğan’s last term according to the constitution (Erdoğan’s tenure in office will end officially in 2028 May), there are also heated debates about his successor. In this piece, I am going to evaluate recent political developments in Turkish Politics by focusing on the situation of the opposition while leaving aside the discussion about who could replace Erdoğan to another article.
CHP’s Congress Will Be Held on Early November
Türkiye’s main opposition party, pro-secular and social democratic CHP (Republican People’s Party) is in ruins psychologically after the shocking electoral defeat. The party’s chair, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was hoping to become Türkiye’s new President due to Erdoğan government’s poor economic performance and terrible management of crisis following the devastating earthquakes in early February 2023. Although Kılıçdaroğlu was not doing very good in the earlier polls -especially compared to his party’s popular Mayors such as Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş-, as the election approached, almost all polls pointed him as the favorite candidate against Erdoğan. However, Erdoğan, his Islamist/conservative AK Parti (Justice and Development Party), and the right-wing electoral bloc with other small right-wing and far-right political parties Cumhur İttifakı (People’s Alliance) showed an outstanding performance at the ballots and acquired a decisive victory in May 2023.
This shocking defeat caused despair and apathy among the supporters of the opposition as people stopped talking politics and watching TV channels for several months. Even the party’s chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not appear on media for several weeks to regain his confidence and recover his morale. However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s turning back to normal also did not change the anger and despair of the opposition voters. While the party’s Istanbul Mayor and rising star Ekrem İmamoğlu showed his intention to replace Kılıçdaroğlu, CHP chair openly stated that he would make necessary changes within the party administration and continue to lead CHP. Kılıçdaroğlu also mentioned that the party needs İmamoğlu as Istanbul Mayor since there will be a tough local election in March 2024 in the economic capital of the country. Kılıçdaroğlu also endorsed Mansur Yavaş as the party’s Ankara Mayor for the approaching elections. Eventually İmamoğlu calmed down and accepted Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership temporarily while continuing to make reference to the necessity of change and self-criticism.
But the media and party supporters continued to ask for a change in the leadership of the party. Eventually, the party’s young deputy from Manisa and the new parliamentary group leader Özgür Özel (1974-) announced his candidacy for the leadership. Ekrem İmamoğlu also supported Özel’s bid for leadership. Another candidate for leadership is Örsan Kunter Öymen (1965-), a Philosophy Professor coming from an important Republican family, the Öymens. Öymen’s uncle Altan Öymen is a famous journalist and he was CHP’s leader for a short while in the 1999-2000 period. Öymen’s close relative and former diplomat Onur Öymen on the other hand was CHP’s Vice Chair during Deniz Baykal era.
So, do these candidates have a real chance to replace Kılıçdaroğlu at the 38th Ordinary Party Congress? It seems like Professor Örsan Kunter Öymen does not have a strong base among the party delegates and members. Delegates are important because they will vote at the Congress to choose the leader. Özgür Özel on the other hand could have a real chance to replace Kılıçdaroğlu and become the 8th Chair of the party following Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938), İsmet İnönü (1938-1972), Bülent Ecevit (1972-1980), Deniz Baykal (1992-1995, 1995-1999, 2000-2010), Hikmet Çetin (1995-1995), Altan Öymen (1999-2000), and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (2010-).
Özgür Özel was born in 1974 in Manisa. He graduated from Bornova Anadolu Lisesi (BAL), a famous state college in Izmir. He later started to have university education in the department of Pharmacology at Ege (Aegean) University in Izmir. As a young Turkish citizen raised in Izmir, Türkiye’s third biggest city known for its strong secular and Kemalist tradition, he became involved in social democractic circles and began to support the CHP. Özel finished Ege University’s Pharmacology department in 1997 and began to work as pharmacist independently. He became CHP’s Mayor candidate in Manisa in 2009, during Deniz Baykal’s leadership, but eventually lost the election. In 2011, he was elected CHP’s Manisa deputy for the first time. In 2014, he took his chance to become Manisa Mayor once again, but was defeated. He was elected regularly CHP’s Manisa deputy in 2015 June, 2015 November, 2018, and 2023 parliamentary elections. He became a member of the party administration in 2014 first time. In 2015, he was elected deputy chairman for the parliamentary group of CHP. Özel drew attention seriously first time in 2014 when he warned the public and authorities about the difficult and dangerous working conditions in Soma Coal Mine in Manisa. A few weeks after his warning, a terrible disaster in Soma Coal Mine caused the death of 301 coal miners and showed the miserable condition of Türkiye in terms of labour safety. Özel continued to appear on TV channels with his heated speeches and rational criticism of the government and achieved to find considerable support among the party members and supporters. Father of a child, Özel is fluent in German and English languages.
Özgür Özel is not the favorite candidate for the moment since party delegates are determined by the party administration and the leadership. However, one should keep in mind that, in case party authorities and delegates realize that they will not have any chance against Erdoğan in the March 2024 local elections without a leadership change, they might decide to support Özel. In that scenario, Özel could be the party’s new chair in a surprising manner. This could bring new hope and dynamism to CHP and could change the overwhelming defeatist psychology. Although I do not have the latest polls and opinion polling companies failed largely at predicting the result of 2023 elections, I think the opposition could have a chance in the approaching local elections only in case of the leadership change. Otherwise, I expect AK Parti victory in many metropolitan cities including Istanbul and Ankara as well. This is because many CHP voters are very angry towards the party leadership and they might not even go to ballots this time in order to punish Kılıçdaroğlu. It is still possible for Kılıçdaroğlu to motivate people within this long 6 months period, but a leadership change could accelerate things and seems to be a more guaranteed solution. That is why, Özel’s election as the new chair of CHP will not be a big shock to me although I think Kılıçdaroğlu is still the favourite.
İYİ Parti trying to find its own way
Another important political party from the opposition is secular/Turkish nationalist İYİ Parti (Good Party). Split from MHP in 2017, the party’s first and current leader is former Turkish Minister of Interior Affairs Meral Akşener. Coming from an ultranationalist background, Akşener tries to find a suitable place for her party on the political spectrum and appeal to secular nationalist, center-right, and Kemalist voters primarily. After Kılıçdaroğlu’s insistence of becoming a presidential candidate himself, Akşener reluctantly supported him after a few days of hesitation. However, when the opposition had a terrible defeat at the ballots, Akşener began to distance her party from CHP and follow their own path. After a long break, Akşener severely criticized Kılıçdaroğlu for his decision to force his own candidacy although public opinion polls were favouring other candidates such as İmamoğlu and Yavaş. Thus, we can clearly state that Akşener has now been trying to separate her ways from Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP.
This might be a clever strategy for taking more support from right-wing voters, especially at a time when the ultranationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) is weak, President Erdoğan is in his last term, and Turkish economy continues to perform poorly. But now Akşener not only distances herself from the leftist CHP, but also rejects an electoral collaboration/cooperation with CHP under the banner of Millet İttifakı (Nation Alliance) as well. This might be very risky for the secular opposition in Türkiye and without CHP-İYİ Parti partnership, I estimate that AK Parti could win almost in all metropolitan cities except Izmir. That is why, Akşener’s anti-Kılıçdaroğlu positioning could facilitate the leadership change in CHP as well in the coming days, opening the way for Özgür Özel’s chairmanship. With Özel becoming the new chair, Akşener could be more easygoing concerning electoral collaboration with CHP. In any scenario, 6 months is a very long period for Turkish political life and anything is still possible.
Finally, in my opinion, as Türkiye’s democratic backsliding is no joke but a serious problem, opposition parties should act responsibly and continue to cooperate in elections. Otherwise, the emergence of a party-state system similar to 1930s is possible with secular lifestyle and personal freedoms as well as the rights of minorities are getting into danger.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ
Cover Photo: CHP’s Manisa deputy and candidate for the chairmanship of the party Özgür Özel and İYİ Parti leader Meral Akşener