If he can convince conservative voters, Kılıçdaroğlu will make history

The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have recently started to change their discourse to include broader segments of society. Their success in wooing conservative voters could alter the course of history.

Murat Sevinç

How will Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), be remembered in a few years time? As one of the figures who saved Turkey from the edge of a cliff? Or as one of those who tumbled down with the country? Both of are plausible options. For Kılıçdaroğlu's changing behavior suggests one possibility after the one. If one of his moves brings hope, the next one will be infuriating. One day he will stress his commitment to the rule of law, but the following day, he will approve a constitutional amendment that is unconstitutional.

The prominent academic Professor Bahri Savcı, who contributed in drafting the 1961 constitution, once described a certain type of administrator, more or less like this: “There is a person who you wouldn’t know why they were sitting at that position for 40 years. Then, one day, they act in a certain way, or do not act in a certain way, and you understand why they were in that seat for 40 years.” 

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's behavior remind me of Professor Savcı’s words. Almost apathetic, the political leader will all of a sudden walk from Ankara to Istanbul, making the headlines in the media for almost a month. At a time when one would have relinquished all hopes, Kılıçdaroğlu will take the lead in forming election alliances. Yet before you have time to process this information, the CHP leader will have given the green light for his rival and former president Abdullah Gül to take up candidacy for the presidency. Then, Kılıçdaroğlu will reluctantly approve a bill to send troops to Syria. Moreover, it is never clear whether he has made his decisions alone or upon discussions with the party councils.

Despite that, I still believe history will remember Kılıçdaroğlu favorably. I believe Turkey possesses the historic experience and background to end the reign of political Islamists through a democratic election and this is a process Kılıçdaroğlu can significantly contribute to. I hope he will go down in history as a CHP leader that has more pros than cons, though needless to say there more reasons to be pessimistic at the moment.

The image of a different CHP member 

Back in 2009, when I wrote in the daily Radikal newspaper that I wished Kılıçdaroğlu would become the CHP leader, my readers found me rather naive. As he was campaigning for local elections to become Istanbul's mayor, I was at one his rallies at Taşlıtarla, a low-income district of Istanbul. Kılıçdaroğlu was walking through narrow and muddy alleys in plastic boots. He had the image of a different CHP member, which made him gain quite a high number votes in the election. He then became the party leader through an odd ascension.

While many of my readers disagreed, I believed that for the past ten years, it is not the CHP that has received too few votes but rather the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has received too many votes.

In ordinary circumstances, I would have expected Kılıçdaroğlu to resign after losing one or two elections. That would have been the most decent thing to do because clinging to a post despite continuously losing elections amounts to the same behavior than that of the government he so criticizes. Those who call on Kılıçdaroğlu to resign have a point. Yet the circumstances are not ordinary.

The AKP-run government is not ordinary and that also applies to the CHP - a seemingly irrelevant party that could nonetheless undertake change and make the right moves to defeat the AKP. But perhaps those people do exist, who knows? Besides, one should not forget the CHP's glorious past in clique-forming in which the small-town lawyer mentality competes with that of the opportunist contractor. 

Stuck at 25 percent  

Kılıçdaroğlu did not take over a smoothly operating machine, but a party that was frozen in a certain time zone, and its cogwheels were rusted. Though he was able to raise the party's votes, he soon reached a standstill. Still, I would argue that the reason why the CHP has been stuck at 25 percent is not solely attributable to the party's policies.

Aside from the CHP's internal problems, the party's greatest handicap has to do with current political circumstances. For the party is burdened with the task of opposing a government endowed with extraordinary powers and that has suspended the constitution. This is no easy feat. It requires extraordinary methods and tools that are hardly compatible with the structure of the CHP and the personality of Kılıçdaroğlu.

Nonetheless, a recent interview Kılıçdaroğlu conducted with the outlet T24 suggests he might be successful in radically transforming the CHP.

Today, one in four voters in Turkey supports the CHP. And these voters hail from all walks of life. The average CHP voter profile is made up of educated middle class members. Of course, there are uneducated, rural and poor voters, though they are a minority. On the other hand, the AKP has long gathered the bulk of the right-wing electorate under one umbrella and has gained the vote of one in two voters, from working-class neighborhoods, villages - mostly small business owners and so-called "Anatolian tigers." Despite having morphed into a party of the newly privileged, the AKP continues to attract a significant number of votes from the poor.

As I have previously stressed, communication between the different segments of this country - whether religious, secular, rich or poor - is necessary. And this does not apply solely to the ballot box but to society in general.

Fed up of conservative rhetoric

I would argue that communication with conservative segments of society can be held through an honest "leftist discourse" that allows for understanding each other's concerns. That segment is fed up of religious rhetoric and instead is seeking an alternative, genuine, egalitarian and empathetic approach. This is something opposition parties do not seem to have fully comprehended.

While it remains unclear whether the CHP has embarked on new path or is merely experimenting, this strategy seems to be more or less effective. I have noticed the CHP has been gaining ground in my conservative circles.

In this context, Kılıçdaroğlu’s T24 interview and the change I witness in my circles intersect. 

Political parties are successful to the extent that they carry politics outside the parliament, which has no function in Turkey, and as much as they can establish face-to-face relationships. But sheer encounters do not bring about much, parties should convince voters about their plans for the future.

If we are to live in an equal and more humane society, cross-societal communication should be sustained. Yet one should not expect the CHP to take up the role of a socialist party that seeks socialist-like equality.

I shall now convey some the recent statements made by Kılıçdaroğlu which I found promising.

Meetings rather than rallies 

“We are conducting meetings with urban opinion leaders that are close to the conservative world or to center-right politics. The ground rule of our meetings is that all participants are free to ask me any question they want…so that I can sincerely answer them. These meetings sometimes last three to four hours. Of course, we also ask them why they have not voted for us…”

“We have patiently explained to our provincial organizations the significance of meeting with opinion leaders that have voted positively in the referendum or who were close to that option. I have told the CHP organization that I don’t need to be personally present. Meet with opinion leaders of the conservative world that have not voted for us and that keep their distance from us. We are telling them to organize meetings where they can easily criticize the CHP and freely express their thoughts about the CHP.” 

“Let's admit that there is no meaning in holding rallies today. In a polarized society, there is no need to explain yourself to the voter segment that has already decided to vote for you. What matters is to reach those names that keep their distance but also want to know you, or that may change their political preferences the more they know you, who might affect their close circles with this change… Our branches happily adopted this type of campaigning. The more they knocked on doors that they had not knocked on before or were too shy to knock on before, the more they met them, as they received positive results from these meetings, the more they adopted this method.”

“I think these outreaches are more effective and more beneficial than rallies. Another good example of the meetings with opinion leaders is the meeting held with women preachers. It was an extremely important and beneficial meeting. Another example is the meeting we held with village heads where not even one vote was casted for CHP. We explained ourselves to the heads of these villages without any expectation of a vote for ourselves in the next election… In Mersin, Antalya and Adana, for instance, we met the yörüks (nomads) and the yörük opinion leaders…”

The condescending attitude

“We selected 14 provinces including Ankara and Istanbul to hold these meetings. From their answers to our questions why they do not vote for CHP, we concluded that there is a judgement that the CHP is looking down upon these names and the social segments these names represent. Sadly, I have to say, that I have seen that a perception has settled that we look down upon people, that we scorn them. If we are perceived like this, it is we who are responsible for this.” 

“Religion is of course an important factor. I told you we held meetings predominantly in the Black Sea region with village heads of those villages who have not voted for CHP, much before the elections. I saw in these meetings that a wrong perception was widespread that CHP had its distance to religion, that it had issues with beliefs.” 

“In sum, we are telling all our organizational bodies, ‘Before anything else, listen to whoever is there talking to you. After listening your first words should be “You are right” and then ask “Would you listen to me?” You will listen to the person across you whatever they say about you’ We tell them to listen sincerely.” 

“We have a segment in the grassroots of our party what we can call ‘the retired teacher,’ who are very angry at us from time to time; at the same time, they are giving us lessons. We should listen to them as well. It is very important to listen to their just or unjust criticisms, what people think about the CHP. Taking this opportunity, we should be explaining ourselves. Of course, it is not a must that they should vote for us, but it is important that we explain our party. In our organizational bodies, from time to time, we do have a reflex of immediately responding to criticism; what I’m saying is ‘Do not hurry. Be patient’ and listen first.” 

“I believe the alliance we have formed for democracy will grow with time. At the stage we have reached in Turkey today, there is no right or left politics. There are those who are in favor of democracy and those who are in favor of authoritarian regime… I am repeating this very frequently. We have to crown the republic with democracy…”

Making peace with different segments

I do not fully agree with the expressions above. It is great to witness greater awareness that politics need to be done in other mediums and ways. This search for a language will not send people rushing to opposition parties, but will help politics, though slowly, to take a path that would bring about true benefits: training and transformation.  

How close will Kılıçdaroğlu get to the targets he summed up in his speech? No one knows. Still, I find his sincere efforts very valuable and I can see that he is becoming more effective in religious circles except for fanatics and those incurable self-seekers. It is significant that he is able to make the much-needed communication with millions of citizens without moving his party or policies to a “further right” position or “giving up from defending secularism” and most importantly without disheartening his own rooted voter profile. 

In this process, the contribution of Istanbul provincial head Canan Kaftancıoğlu and her ability to “bring together segments” as well as “facilitating and path clearing” effects of the right-wing opposition İyi and the Felicity Party (SP) should not be overlooked. The structure of these parties, their voter profiles and their relationships with the conservative world is the subject of another piece.   

Whether or not history will look favorably upon Kılıçdaroğlu lies not only in his ability to snatch the government from Islamists that have monopolized it but also in taking the formidable step of bridging different segments in Turkish society - a goal that had been attributed to the AKP 20 years ago. A reason why our current rulers fear Kılıçdaroğlu so much is that they can see this likelihood.

In fact, the government's continuous slandering of Kılıçdaroğlu reveals their feeling of insecurity. They themselves failed to achieve social peace. But they know someone else can.

Who is Murat Sevinç?

Born in Istanbul in 1970, Murat Sevinç enrolled at Ankara University Faculty of Political Science in 1998. He started his Political Science master's degree at the same university in 1995 and became an assistant specialized in Constitution in December of the same year. He has published articles and written two books on constitutional law and history. Sevinç penned many articles for the daily newspaper Radikal İki and the news outlet Diken. He was an academic at Ankara University until he was dismissed from his post alongside hundreds of his colleagues late on Feb. 7, 2017 with a state of emergency decree.