Turkish main opposition CHP's new leader Özel vows implementation of left policies

Turkish main opposition CHP’s new leader Özgür Özel told Gazete Duvar in an interview that they would appeal to the right-wing voters with leftist and social democrat policies, criticizing previous leader Kılıçdaroğlu’s policies.

Ceren Bayar, Nergis Demirkaya / Gazete Duvar

Turkish main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) elected its new leader Özgür Özel this month and ended previous leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s 13-year rule.

In an interview with Gazete Duvar, Özel said they would start contacting the other opposition parties to discuss possible strategies for the local elections to be held on March 31, 2024.

He also said they would appeal to the right-wing voters by adopting leftist and social democrat policies, criticizing Kılıçdaroğlu’s alliance policies and appointment of right-wing advisors. 

Below are some of the questions asked by Gazete Duvar and Özel’s answers:

In the run-up to the party congress, you said 'there is an emotional disconnection (after the electoral defeat), voters are being hesitant towards voting.’ Your delegates also agreed with this view and made the change (by electing you). What impact did this change have? Has there been a change that eliminated the emotional disconnection you mentioned?

Some surveys support this (impact). But survey companies say that in a period when emotion and excitement is high, the results will not give accurate results. So, we are trying not to get complacent about the first surveys. But everything we see on the field shows that the issue of emotional rupture has been resolved, and the voters of the Republican People's Party and the resentful opposition voters have given credit to this change.

When people will see that change is not limited to an individual change, this impact will be more permanent. Because we didn't just change the chair. The staff has changed, the structure of the staff has changed. There is a Party Assembly with an average age of 43, a Central Executive Board with an average age of 46, and a shadow cabinet where half of them are women and half are men. All of these show that many things will change in the party, and people give serious credit to this. 

Party members point out the various initiatives taken to expand the party base during the reign of former leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and ask, "Will the new CHP embrace these initiatives and work to expand and grow, or will it proceed with a narrow, groupist approach?." There are those who express their concerns created by statements such as "CHP belongs to CHP members" and "We will move forward with the true members of the party." Considering these concerns, how will the "25 percent threshold", which you recently expressed as "we need to break down", be broken?

Some of the concerns were because of the existence of appointed people instead of elected ones in the party's decision-making mechanisms and that they are predominantly from right-wing politics. Some remarks criticizing this attitude can be perceived as “CHP is hostile to the right, right-wing voters, and right-wing politicians.” We have no such intention.

I described the alliance process in the last election as follows: When six runners tried to run with chains tied around their waists, everyone was hindering each other. I think that the alliance issue should be addressed towards the general elections, and that everyone should engage in politics with their own identity during that period. I think that the Republican People's Party has the potential to shatter that 25 percent vote share threshold when it presents itself to the public with its left-social democratic identity.

Because with our attempts to appeal to the right, with the suggestions of right-wing advisors, we could not exceed 25 percent. In fact, while the polls alone showed 28 percent and we had the potential to get 30 percent, we nominated 60 deputy candidates in our list and ensured the election of 39 deputies (from right-wing Nation Alliance parties). This brought us to 25 percent again. This means that this attempt did not receive any response in society.

That's why we will appeal to those who voted for the right today, but from a place that is left, social democratic, egalitarian, fair, that supports them, and objects to their poverty, unemployment and insecurity. We will appeal to the right with leftist policies. We don't necessarily have to call it the left. But for example, the ‘Justice in Taxation’ that we defend together with DİSK concerns 20 million people. 16 million of those 20 million voted for the ruling AKP.

From left to right: Nergis Demirkaya from Duvar, CHP leader Özgür Özel, and Ceren Bayar from Duvar

How do you read the debate that started with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's offer to remove absolute majority requirement in the presidential elections and continued with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli's refusal? Why do you think this discussion started?

I can say two things about this discussion. First of all, the government is trying to pull us into the debate of changing the Constitution. We know that his intentions there are not pure. Of course, the intention is not to make a more democratic constitution, but to weaken the Constitutional Court (AYM). Not just us, but the entire opposition and politics. Secondly, there is something that makes Tayyip Erdoğan very uncomfortable, that is, the agenda is determined outside himself. 

We are in an atmosphere where the change in the Republican People's Party will have a very positive impact on the local elections. We do not want to leave this positive atmosphere to some of Tayyip Erdoğan's political cleverness.

What do you say about the comments "There is a rift between MHP and AKP, AKP wants to get rid of MHP"? Could Erdoğan be looking for a new partner, as claimed?

These are all noteworthy evaluations, but I do not want to be busy with this agenda and miss the main agenda. This country has a poverty agenda, an unemployment agenda, serious problems in the earthquake zone, students have housing problems. Those who want to be busy with the government's agenda should be busy. We will be busy with the real agenda. 

The image of a crisis between the two parties (AKP and MHP), the İYİ Party struggling with its own crises, the Kurdish votes that are extremely important... Would you agree with the interpretation that the AKP is winking at the HEDEP and İYİ Party and has a local election plan?

Anything is possible, but they say, "Winter will pass, the wolf will not forget the frost it felt." The opposition of this country does not forget where the AKP and MHP left them. For example, nationalist voters will not forget the cancellation of their congresses (in the MHP) due to judicial manipulation and (Erdoğan’s) palace intervention. Kurdish voters do not forget “Everyone is equal in Turkey, but Kurds are less equal” and appointment of trustee mayors to replace HDP mayors.

All eyes are on you as local elections approach. It will be your first exam. As the CHP leader, when will you initiate cooperation talks and how will you repair the damage caused by the elections we left behind? Are you thinking of visiting other leaders? What kind of road map do you have?

We will take action in five main areas starting next week until the end of the year: Meeting with parties, investigating cooperation opportunities, deciding on the status of existing municipalities, determining the method for mayors that will change, and determining candidates in places that need to be determined quickly. I think there should also be contacts at the party chair level. I will do my part in this regard starting next week. 

Do you have an alliance strategy?

The word alliance is used so much. Together we destroyed the concept of alliance. There is a perception that comes with the use of the word alliance: crowded and unsuccessful. That's why I prefer cooperation from now on.

In these local elections, cooperation can be made between two parties and with whatever party the local constituency requires. Sometimes there can be more than two, but we can move forward in these elections by cooperating bilaterally. Instead of developing a general definition of alliance and saying "we will all be here together", it is necessary to work on a model in which we would prefer to gain for each other and the country, with constituency-specific bilateral cooperation, instead of making each other lose. In other words, bilateral collaborations specific to the constituency and by listening to the locals, if necessary, triple or quadruple collaborations. But it would occur in exceptional cases.

The opposition right-wing İYİ (Good) Party, on the other hand, is determined to nominate mayoral candidates in 81 provinces. Won't this be a disadvantage for you?

We all have a responsibility. If the İYİ Party is determined not to cooperate, we have to respect this. Nobody is obliged to us. But I cannot explain to my voters not to cooperate. That's why I'll do whatever I can.

The pro-Kurdish HEDEP declared that it wanted "transparent meetings" and "transparent cooperation" for local election cooperation, and you said that you would meet transparently. What is meant by transparent cooperation?

A very justified request. There is always backdoor diplomacy in politics, but there is no alliance or cooperation only with backdoor diplomacy. If there will be a meeting with the HEDEP, the public will know about it. If there will be cooperation, for example, if sacrifices will be made on our or their behalf in some places, the public will know about it. We will not be in a collaboration that we cannot explain and defend to the public and that would make us ashamed.

Even though the HEDEP was not in the alliance, the CHP received a lot of criticism in the last election. What will be your strategy against similar criticism?

I say that if we are collaborating, it will be visible. I will demand that no one believes in something that is not visible. I think this openness and transparency can also prevent some speculations. I also think that the smears and some video montages were not challenged effectively enough at that time (in the pre-election period). If such things are attempted, we will fight against them effectively. Whatever I do, I will do it in front of the public.

Do you predict a risk of losing in the local elections for Istanbul and Ankara?

I think we will easily win the elections in Istanbul and Ankara. This is also seen in the polls. It would be risky if we open up a discussion regarding their future. They need to start working on the elections as soon as possible. They have already started and are doing well.

One of the most frequent criticisms against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was that he did not resign from the party leadership after the election failures. What is your criterion of success and failure?

I evaluate changing the government in the first general elections (in 2028 as scheduled) as success, and not being able to change it as failure. For example, the party became the first party, but I could not change the government. I would not consider myself successful, I would decide on an extraordinary party congress. If there is a result that looks successful but does not change the government, I will leave the decision to the delegate. If I get a bad result and lose, I will quit immediately.

(English version by Alperen Şen)