Former CHP MP Cihaner says process of party leadership election 'not fair'

In an interview with Gazete Duvar, former main opposition CHP lawmaker İlhan Cihaner, who challenged Kılıçdaroğlu and his politics for a long time, said the process of the election for party leadership is “not fair.” Cihaner said the party has left its original ideological position on the premise of attracting more right-wing voters.

Didem Mercan / Gazete Duvar

Following the presidential and parliamentary electoral loss of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the calls for change have been increasing within the party.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has been the leader of the party since 2010, has yet shown no intention to resign after losing the second round of the presidential election against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In the parliamentary elections, the CHP received 25.41 percent of the votes, falling short of expectations while leaving majority seats to the ruling alliance.

CHP Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has been one of the important figures within the party saying a radical change is needed within the party. 

Another figure, former CHP lawmaker İlhan Cihaner who has been challenging Kılıçdaroğlu and his policies for a long time, told Gazete Duvar in an interview that the process of the election for the party leadership is “not fair” and that opposition voices are tried to be suppressed.

The CHP is expected to hold its general convention later this year but the exact date is not announced yet.

Cihaner criticized the CHP leaving its original ideological leftist position and becoming a more and more right-wing party to "attract" the voters, which "failed". He added that a change within the party looks “very difficult” with its current structure and organization.

In the previous CHP convention in 2020, Cihaner announced his candidacy but failed to secure enough signatures to run for the post.

Below are the questions asked by Gazete Duvar and Cihaner’s answers:

In the 14 May elections, the ruling People's Alliance won the majority in the Parliament. On May 28, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu could not get the desired result, despite the support of six parties other than the CHP, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president once again. How do you evaluate the results?

I see it as a clear defeat of the Nation Alliance parties and the CHP. A crushing defeat. There was a goal of reaching at least a majority in the parliament, which was not achieved. The representation of the CHP in the parliament is less than in the past. We are receiving very strong signals that other parties from the Nation Alliance will not be able to act together on the parliamentary agenda in the same way. The presidential election was also lost. This may seem like a simple defeat, but before the election, it was incredibly promoted as "This election is the last election in the eyes of all voters, it's a matter of life and death". This is how propaganda was made. Compared to other elections, due to the previous attitude, it led to greater intimidation and despair. So I see it as a defeat.

We see that the dynamics that made the CHP win in the local elections have been resolved. Another reason why I justify it as a defeat is the policies followed by the CHP. As the nationalist right thought has a broader representation, a perception has also been created intellectually, as if it were the only and true right vote, as if that was the only way to succeed in winning elections, and ideologically directed towards it. Especially in the second round, the protocol signed with Ümit Özdağ is an indicator of this. Putting it all together, I simply cannot see it as a simple loss of elections. I see it as a crushing defeat.

As you have just mentioned, the CHP, which developed different policies to reach the right-wing voters, especially when going to the second round, still could not get the desired result. What do you think is the formula for the change that will lead the CHP to success? Do you think the Table of Six experience was a mistake? How can the CHP expand its 25 percent vote rate, which it has not been able to exceed for years, and how can it open up to different social segments?

Even if I say "Table of Six was a success", the results are obvious. The values traditionally defended by the CHP and the ideological attitude were abandoned. So much so that definitions such as "CHP nationalists" were made. Former presidents of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves (“Ülkü Ocaklar”) declared support for the Nation Alliance. It became clear that this approach did not lead to success. By doing so, you serve the hegemony of the structures that you have to fight according to the historical and party program. Instead of confronting them with a different ideological attitude and persuading the voters to hold on to that ideology, on the contrary, you are voicing the values that brought that voter into existence.

Both the process management is not successful and the requirements brought by that idea were not managed correctly. The deputy lists were prepared wrong. There can't be six vice presidents that would cause management difficulty. 

So how can CHP achieve it?

Politics in Turkey and the CHP is generally conceived as a business between politicians. There is a presumption that when the chairs of the İYİ Party and CHP come together and agree, this agreement will reflect on the voters in the same way, and there will be a synergy from there. There is a representation crisis in almost all parties in Turkey. Mechanisms and political communication techniques that can directly reach citizens need to be revealed. From the point of view of our party, the organization struggled for this election, but the right discourse set, concept set, program was not put in front of the organizations, and the opinions of the organizations were not heard while these decisions were taken. While candidates are being determined and alliances are being formed...

Taking into account the crises of social democracy, an updated, more social and leftist policy should have been propagated. Citizens had to be convinced of this. But unfortunately, by meeting with opinion leaders, it was thought that votes would be obtained and votes would be increased by agreeing with strange political actors who have no name. It was considered sufficient to come together with some conservative figures and parties to reach the conservative voters. However, those parties and figures are seen by conservative voters as people who betrayed their cause. Just because Sadullah Ergin or Ahmet Davutoğlu or Ali Babacan came to an alliance, AKP voters did not vote for the Nation Alliance. This is natural. 

All the polls were wrong at the same time...

That was the biggest problem. While the past successes and failures of the survey approach in Turkey are evident, this is the result when you exclude your organizations that are in direct contact with the society and construct an unorganized election campaign based on surveys only.

We see that the voices of change are rising in the CHP. How do you think the leadership race will be completed in the CHP, which is preparing for the congress in the shadow of the rising demands for change? With the current delegate structure, how do you see the chances of the candidate or candidates coming against Kılıçdaroğlu?

Very difficult. Just as competing against a party-state brings many difficulties, the same problem exists within political parties. If you notice, in almost none of the parties, the leadership does not change with the preference of the delegate or the member (however it is formulated), as claimed. A trauma is happening. The parties are split because those who try to do something in the parties and intend to become the chair are eliminated in an anti-democratic way. The process of the İYİ Party's break with the MHP started with the congress that could not be held. If that congress had been held, perhaps there would have been a democratic change in the leadership (from Devlet Bahçeli), or those who had competed and were defeated in that congress would have continued democratically in that party… The separation of Ayhan Bilgen from HDP, the break with DEVA and the Future Party from AKP can be said in the same way.

Could there be a change in our party? Very difficult. I see that a process in which the concept of change is quickly emptied within 2 weeks. No one says what the change encompasses, what its ideological dimension is, or what kind of change is described. It is mostly discussed over the change of people. If there had been only an administrative crisis, if there had been only election failure, only resignation could have made change, but there is no such picture... Because we are faced with the bankruptcy of the political attitude that has been constructed for 10 years. Becoming a right-wing movement In order to reach the right-wing voters…

First of all, the political stance of the party needs to be changed, or at least discussed. This discussion has not been made. İf we are talking about a change that the CHP needs to make, it must first go beyond the boundaries of its members. It is necessary to meet with the electorate group that supports them and has not been a member for years, and formulate what that voter group understands from change. The result that comes out of there needs to be transformed into something that will renew these three pillars in terms of internal party law, political attitudes and cadres. It seems that Kılıçdaroğlu intends to continue, this is evident from the statements. If he does not revise this intention during the local election process, it may be very difficult for a candidate to come up against him. This is what I call "change is drowned". 

Kılıçdaroğlu said at the CHP parliamentary group meeting that he would 'open the way for change to the end'. He even said ‘it is the captain's duty to take the ship to a safe port. Let everyone know that I will take the ship to a solid port'. Does he show its determination to go to the 2024 local elections under its own leadership or does he point to a new leader?

The races to be held within the party take place in unfair conditions. In the last provincial congresses of the party, a candidate was determined from the center, the candidates who would face that candidate were discouraged in one way or another, and the candidate was elected by the delegation determined by that candidate. It is a little difficult to achieve change from an organized structure formed under these conditions. It's hard to be a part of change. If you do not self-criticize about the reasons for the electoral defeat in this process, if you say, “I will set a Table of 16, not Six”, you are saying that you will do the same politics both ideologically and as a practical way of doing politics.

First you need to analyze the dynamics, then you need to build a change that comes from the grassroots, internalized by the grassroots, which includes the pillars of cadre, politics, ideological attitude and internal party law. This is not possible by giving a hand, nor by an attitude of 'I will take the ship to the port'. This only means a continuation of the existing structure, that's how I read this statement. There is no self-criticism of the political stance taken by the party.

A 12-year-old boy committed suicide in a madrassa (Islamic education facility). It should give the CHP goosebumps. They cannot develop a staggering political stance. The voices are cut off, saying, 'We can't say it, they are attacking us out of irreligion anyway'. Or there has been an incredible attack on LGBTI+ rights lately. The party does not develop a discourse against the attacks.

They prefer to remain silent in order to get votes. Right?

"The AKP will charge us during the local election process," they think. This attitude, this political line should be well defined, criticized and a brand new style should be put forward.

A leadership election will also be held at the next CHP convention (later in this year). Do you have a name in mind that fits these criteria for you? Ekrem İmamoğlu and Özgür Özel gave the green light for candidacy. The name of Oğuz Kaan Salıcı is also frequently spoken within the party. What is your assessment of these names?

Anyone who supports and applauds the current defeat and the current policy cannot be the main actor of change. As I mentioned, people who are part of a practice that demonizes people who give rightful warnings cannot be a part of change without self-criticism.

I tried to put this claim into practice in 2020.

Would you consider running again?

This is a matter of courage and assertion. I have taken this initiative before under more difficult conditions. But look, there is not even a convention date yet. This is an anti-democratic attitude. 

You are in favor of a radical change. I understand that you are dreaming of a CHP with many voices, not a convention with a single candidate, including for the chair of the party.

No doubt. I mean the provincial and district convention processes, not just the convention in which the chair is elected. At the CHP convention, national issues and even alliance relations should be discussed and decided there. Let alone this, even in the party assembly, this decision is not taken and discussed. We are living in a process where everyone's future is stuck between the lips of certain people. This needs to be resolved. Change must also have a foot that will ensure internal party law and democracy. Also, a guarantee mechanism should be put forward to ensure that the by-law amendment will be implemented.