Following the unexpected resignation of its leader of 18 years, Deniz Baykal, Turkey’s main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) seems the get its second wind after years of stagnation by the election of unassuming, modest Kemal Kilicdaroglu with the unanimous vote of the some 1,000 delegates at the weekend 33rd congress of Turkey’s oldest political party.
Only two weeks ago Baykal resigned from his post as CHP leader after a video was posted on the internet showing him in a boudoir with a woman, allegedly his long time assistant whom he managed to get elected as a deputy during the 2007 elections.
Kilicdaroglu, 62, was born in a small town near Tunceli eastern Turkey where his father was working as a land registry official. He spent his childhood and got his education in the small towns of Turkey where his father was posted. As the only one of the seven siblings who got a chance to have a higher education, he graduated from Ankara’s Economic and Commercial Sciences Academy in 1971. He won the tough examination to become one of the public auditors of the Finance Ministry. Just before he unsuccessfully tried to launch his political career in 1999 in the late Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP), he was serving as the director of the Social Security Institution (SSK). In 2002 with Baykal’s initiative he was elected as a CHP deputy from Istanbul.
His modest and unpretentious style won him the popular nickname “Gandhi Kemal.” His professional background as a Finance Ministry auditor became his strong point in combating corruption and his revelations caused Saban Disli and Dengir Mir Mehmet Fuat, two deputy chairmen of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to resign from their posts. He also took on Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek at a television debate producing documents that he was overcharging the inhabitants in natural gas bills.
In the 2009 local elections he became a candidate for Istanbul’s metropolitan mayor but lost although he managed to increase CHP’s votes in this key constituency.
Before Kilicdaroglu announced a week before the CHP congress that he will run for the leadership, Baykal supporters were clamoring for him to withdraw his resignation and return to the helm of the party. Baykal neither refused nor pointed to a successor fostering rumors that he would stage a comeback after all. After Kilicdaroglu announced his candidacy, Baykal complained that he was not consulted.
At the congress which some describe as CHP’s most spirited convention since 1972 that resulted with the victory of Ecevit over the party’s historical leader Ismet Inonu, many social democratic politicians who were axed by Baykal’s one-man, straightjacket administration appeared on stage to support Kilicdaroglu. One such figure was Rahsan Ecevit, the 87-year-old widow of former prime minister Bulent Ecevit who showed up at the packed congress hall to announce his support for Kilicdaroglu.
Change of political strategy
After his election to the leadership, Kilicdaroglu delivered a speech that carried the signs of a shift in the party’s political strategy. Instead of dwelling on questions of the regime in Turkey, such as secularism and founding principles of the republic, he preferred to bring forward problems of unemployment, poverty, corruption and the recent mine disaster in Zonguldak where 30 miners lost their lives. Replying to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments that mine accidents were “written in fate of the miners and people in the mining areas are used to this kind of mishaps,” Kilicdaroglu said, “How come that such disasters are incidents of fate in Turkey whereas in other countries they don’t happen at all.”
• Lowering the 10 percent national threshold for any party to enter the Grand National Assembly. The previous CHP administration under Deniz Baykal was not in favor of such a measure which prevented votes cast to translate fully into the division of seats in the parliament.
• Drafting a law on political ethics that would prevent nepotism, corruption, graft, lobbying for big business interests.
• Working for new measures for labor safety.
• No outsourcing at government-owned enterprises such as mines.
• Removing the bureaucratic obstacles that industrialists face.
• Keeping the pensions of retired abreast with increases in national income.
“I am aware that I am committing myself to a very tough task. I will be occupying the seat of Mustafa Kemal, Inonu, Bulent Ecevit and Deniz Baykal. I am aware of the responsibilities that this post carries with it. Those who occupied this post worked for the people not for themselves. Our task is starting now. We shall carry our struggle to all corners of the country. A part of my responsibility is also belongs to you. We have to struggle together. If we can carry out this struggle together, if we blend with the people, if we feel the sweat of the people there will be no problem that we won’t be able to solve,” addressed Kilicdaroglu the delegates who cheered him shouting slogans “Prime Minister Kilicdaroglu.”
He said he will take the party to the fields, villages, factories, mines, small businesses and to the people in general.
Political commentators observed that Kilicdaroglu’s speech was signaling a shift to the left, but to what extent he can achieve such a change still remains to be seen.
Tradition of rift persists
However, to what extent Kilicdaroglu can do away with the tradition of rifts within CHP still persists as the main question. Although everybody was euphoric after election of Kilicdaroglu with unanimous vote, it was the turn of drawing up a list of 80 members of the Party Assembly which will elect the Central Executive Committee.
According to press reports, Gursel Tekin, CHP’s Istanbul chief, objected to some of the old names initially put on the list and wanted his supporters to replace them. The bargaining went on until 3 a.m. Sunday when a compromise was achieved.
On the other flank there was OnderSav, the old timer general secretary of the party who, it seems, did not put up a fight in order not to undermine the euphoria dominating the atmosphere at the congress.
But the fact that Tekin and his supporters closeted in a hotel room separately and rumors that he did not approve of Kilicdaroglu’s volleys against Prime Minister Erdogan indicated that CHP’s traditional inclination to create rifts cannot be cured promptly.
However, the compromise list did cover a wide spectrum of political scientists, law professors, economists, sociologists, unionists and even a progressive mufti, a local administrator of Religious Affairs Department, who conducted the funeral ceremony last year of Turkan Saylan, the founder and the head of the Association for the Support of Contemporary Life, accused by the Ergenekon prosecutors for supporting the coup planners.
Kilicdaroglu said it was Baykal who first congratulated him after his election adding that he also received similar calls from President Abdullah Gul, Suleyman Demirel, former prime minister and president and Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the rightwing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). “Nobody from that quarter called or sent a message yet,” he said when the journalists asked him if Prime Minister Erdogan also congratulated him.
Prime Minister Erdogan did not lose time to reply to Kilicdaroglu’s speech accusing him of not taking into account the “economic realities” of the country.
“Some people are coming forward and saying they’ll put an end to poverty. When we came to power there were 17 million poor in this country, now this figure has fallen under 13 million. How will you do this? Do you have the necessary sources? Do you have a formula or a plan?” said Erdogan.