Upheaval Stirs Turkey’s Main Opposition Party

Former CHP spokeswoman Selin Sayek Boke

Many expected that a razor-thin win in the controversial referendum last month would plunge the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) into disarray, or a complete party overhaul. The post-referendum signs of a looming power struggle within the party pointed to a gathering storm.

Such expectations for turmoil within the AKP found to be short-lived and misplaced. At least for now. The party restructuring seems to be postponed for a while. It was its main rival, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that descended into upheaval, an intra-party feuding over leadership change.

The CHP, Turkey’s oldest party, has found itself in a political maelstrom, while new soul searching for the direction of the party gained steam. Jostling for the party leadership came to public view after former Chairman Deniz Baykal dropped a bombshell, publicly questioning the leadership qualities of incumbent leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s tepid response to widespread voter fraud and controversial election result spurred new breeding ground for rebels within the party. The party relapsed into turbulence after the resignation of party spokeswoman and Deputy Chairman Selin Sayek Boke at the weekend.

Controversy broke out over her departure, prompting a new insurgency among the rank-and-file against Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s grip over the party. The rumpled no-hope leader of CHP found himself at the center of debates as many ascribe party’s recent woes, misgivings on his “sheer incompetence”.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu has lost every election since he vaulted to the leading position of the party after Mr. Baykal dishonorably relinquished his party leadership following a scandal in 2010.

Under Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s guidance, CHP was unable to tap into the shift in political winds that have swept the society since 2013 after Gezi protests. His palpable insouciance to the transformation and change in party grassroots was the upshot of whole electoral debacles of the near past. He was beholden to a losing streak, seemed unable to break that deadlock.

Nowhere in his 7-yearlong spell over the party, he offered a portrait of a can-do chief who failed to deliver even when the ruling AKP was shaken to its roots by a sweeping corruption scandal four years ago. Mr. Kilicdaroglu was unable to seize the moment when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan found himself boxed in a wide-ranging graft probe in late 2013.

In the intervening years, during both local and parliamentary elections, Mr. Kilicdaroglu again fell short of firing up the campaign trail, failed to coalesce a broader coalition of opposition that would alter the political balance of power.

Speaking to Haberturk TV channel at the weekend, another CHP bigwig Muharrem Ince who a few years ago unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Kilicdaroglu for party leadership again expressed his desire for a change in the party.

He said if he is able to gather 650 signatures of 1,275 party delegates, a number needed for the convention of a general congress to elect a party leader, he wants to be the new chairman of the party.

At the weekend, the party council had a bury-the-hatchet meeting to smooth over the smoldering tension among members, and between the party’s top executives and some insurgent figures. Whatever the efforts are to resolve disputes, the party is fast cruising for a bruising.

Fikri Saglar, a towering figure within the CHP, also faces intra-party disciplinary investigation after his sharp criticism of Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s “dictatorial spell” over the party.

Mr. Saglar accused him of building a one-man rule within the CHP, saying that Mr. Kilicdaroglu and his administration brook no dissent.

CHP leadership’s portrayal of the intra-party opposition as a stalking horse and fifth column for Erdogan’s Palace misses the existence of strong discontent within party ranks. Mr. Ince’s insurgency is not an isolated case. Both seasoned CHP observers, former stalwart figures and influential CHP members are increasingly unhappy with the management of the party.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu was unable to correspond to energized party base who swarmed the streets in protest of Supreme Electoral Board’s (YSK) last-minute ruling to authorize unstamped ballot papers as legitimate votes. He distanced himself from public street protests, drew a line between spontaneous mass rallies and his party.

While he grounded his decision to keep the party away from street protests on security concerns to avoid unwanted street violence between protesters and government supporters, his continued indifference, or lack of commitment, to constituency’s efforts to challenge the referendum result was not lost on the party base.

Despite the narrow loss in the referendum, the 48.6 percent No vote had injected a fresh hope to the shell-shocked opposition for coalescing a broad coalition by cutting across the divided political spectrum against President Erdogan’s rule. The emergence of strong public discontent in the referendum led many to think that signs of a new political formation may be in the offing, elbowing aside political divisions that long bedeviled Turkey’s hamstrung opposition.

On the right, nationalist insurgent Meral Aksener whose breakaway wing of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) came close to deliver an upset to President Erdogan in the historic vote, has emerged as a strong figure to be reckoned with.

Rumors about a new party by Ms. Aksener on the right run wild. Last week, she even exulted that a new party of ‘No’ took shape, though devoid of any substance, or particular constituency for the moment. Still, Ms. Aksener’s promising potential landed her on the watch list of the government, which has appeared more insecure and jittery over its teetering political sway with the razor-thin win. Nobody among the fragmented opposition wants quick dissipation of such momentum.

But any prospect for a new opposition re-alignment is not without challenges. Among odds stacked against either Ms. Aksener or the CHP is the imminent possibility of further fragmentation of the opposition at a time when they most need to bridge their differences for a united front.

Palace intrigue of party politics has recently turned nasty. As the internal chaos looms large over secular CHP, its spokesman Gursel Tekin tried to downplay party fissures, saying that the party meeting settled disciplinary matters.

He refuted Mr. Saglar’s one-man rule claims and said he would not have been able to speak like that if there was one. Mr. Kilicdaroglu portrayed the recent internal squabble as outside meddling to foment divisions within CHP.

“They are seeking ways to divide a 49 percent vote bloc — according to official figures,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said. He lamented that suddenly everybody began to talk about the crisis within CHP which mustered a significant portion of the vote against the constitutional amendment. The proposed constitutional change envisages granting sweeping powers to the presidential office, in a way many sees as unwinding or weakening essential checks and balances that safeguard the separation of powers.

Mr. Ince returned fire against the depiction of intra-party criticism as doing Mr. Erdogan’s bidding or being infiltrated elements of Palace. He said he simply stood up against an acute incompetence that dogged the party for a long time.

Journalist Yavuz Baydar who wrote several columns over the unfolding intra-party quarrels within CHP after referendum sees in the crisis a prospect for the emergence of a new, resilient and coherent body of opposition figures capable of carrying the torch of reformist-revisionist spirit embedded in the opposition side of the political landscape.

A new generation of female politicians, such as Meral Aksener on the right, and Selin Sayek Boke in CHP, Mr. Baydar said, fuels hopes for a change.

In a public break with her party, Ms. Boke clarified her position that she rejects any form of politics content with legitimizing the illegitimate, castigating efforts seeking to give legitimacy to the highly contentious vote.

“Votes of millions were stolen. I reject the every kind of politics that legitimize the illegitimate,” she wrote on Twitter last week, berating both her party’s incompetent standing and the government for depths of efforts to cover election meddling.

Ms. Boke first raised the issue of pulling CHP out of Parliament in reaction to voter fraud and the government’s not-so-secret subjugation of the electoral board.

Reflecting the anguish of the broader party base, her calls pointed to a growing echo chamber of resilient opposition within the party. When the party decided to remain in Parliament, stopping short of a radical measure that could imperil legislative body, even trigger a snap election, Ms. Boke parted her ways with CHP.

The party decision drove a wedge between party apparatchiks, its out-of-touch old elites and its energetic base, which appeared ready to keep fighting with enthusiasm against election scandal.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Baykal’s thrust to the middle of political debates on April 19 when the party base was still challenging the referendum result on streets, with CHP appealing the outcome to the YSK, served almost as a distraction, as a dividing force to splinter the party.

Mr. Baykal said there will be a second round in 2019, the year when the presidential election is scheduled to take place, and the party will take over the presidency from Mr. Erdogan. He already gave up the ground by saying that the first round was lost to Mr. Erdogan. Conceding defeat with that announcement while his party fellows were still contesting the result drew ire of the party. But Mr. Baykal, former CHP chairman, did not stop there. In early May, he again came up with a new formula, offering former President Abdullah Gul the candidacy of opposition while nominating Ms. Aksener and Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk to vice presidential posts.

Both Gul and other figures swiftly rejected his proposal. His efforts of political engineering to redesign the divided realm of opposition did not earn him acclaim, but renewed skepticism over the nature of his exact role.

No less naturally, Mr. Baydar and others nurture genuine doubts that Mr. Baykal may be acting to sabotage nascent efforts to assemble a working, durable new coalition within Turkey’s opposition to blunt Ms. Aksener’s rise. Whatever the truth is, main opposition party in particular, and Turkey’s opposition in general, are in the soul-searching mode, navigating turbulent waters amid endless palace intrigue and new political initiatives.

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