With the Turkish parliamentary election a little more than six weeks away – and being cognizant of the fact that I’ve been ignoring the Ottomans side of the blog in recent months – today’s guest post comes to you from Selim Koru, who is a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in Ankara. He focuses on Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and his post delves into some of the policy changes the CHP has made in an effort to be more electorally competitive and cut into the AKP’s vote share in June. You can follow him on Twitter @SelimKoru
It is tempting to write the CHP campaign’s obituary before the June 7 elections. Turkey’s main opposition party has racked up one spectacular loss after another in the past two decades. It has been clinging to a bankrupt ideology, was consumed by internal squabbling, and blinded by a stubborn sense of entitlement that comes from being Turkey’s founding party. It survived on its core of ideological supporters, who are concentrated in big cities and the Western coast. In the absence of a viable opposition, the AK Party dominated the scene.
It appears however, that the CHP is now squinting into the light of electoral politics. Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu introduced his platform last weekend, and to the country’s surprise, his more than 70-minute speech was not focused on the threat of creeping Islamization, or corruption under AK Party rule. He talked mostly about economic policy. His party seems to have come up with an overall economic plan, then dissected its electorate into groups and targeted each one in offering some reasons to vote for the party. Retired people get holiday bonuses, young people get their credit card interests lowered, farmers get lower fuel prices, newlyweds get lower housing prices and family insurance (delivered to women’s bank accounts) and so on. In other words, planners and strategists at the CHP seem to have done something resembling their actual jobs. They have tried to go beyond their core of 20-25 percent of the electorate, and to convince the middle to vote for them. And they haven’t done that through ideological tricks, like posing for photos with headscarved women, but with actual policy proposals.
Of course this brings problems with it. The Minister of Finance joked the next day that if the CHP showed him how they were going to pay for their promises without exploding the budget, he would vote for them. His point was well received. Turkish politics has a history of big promises, and people haven’t forgotten. In 1991, Tansu Ciller promised every farmer a tractor; the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was going to abolish interest rates across the board; Süleyman Demirel said everyone would have “three keys” – to a home, a car, and a workplace – and once, that he would give “five liras more than whatever anyone else is giving.” That is why Kılıçdaroğlu’s election promises summoned the specter of the 1990s, a time of dysfunctional coalitions governments and debts to the IMF, remembered today as imperialist overlords. The AK Party press of course, has lost no time to accuse Kılıçdaroğlu of “exhuming old Turkey.”
That means that Kılıçdaroğlu treads a narrow path. He needs to grab people’s attention with ambitious promises, but remain credible. So far, things have been a little shaky. CHP spokesmen have said that the money for their election promises was there, but that the AK Party’s corruption kept it off the books. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has tried to reassure people by reminding them of his past as a star bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance, where he managed the social security budget. He has been uncharacteristically confident on fiscal matters, recently responding to the Finance Minister’s comments by saying that “he doesn’t know how taxes are collected, I do.” He will have to stay on the offensive in the run-up to June 7.
The party leader is getting help from an eclectic team. He has chosen an unusual number of new parliamentary candidates, which should enliven the party’s base. The CHP leadership has also been fed polls and ideas by the Benenson Strategy Group, an American firm that has worked for Obama and is said to be working with the 2016 Clinton campaign. The real firepower however, comes from Ali Taran, whose advertising firm is known for its role in the rise of the “Genç Party” (Youth Party), which was founded right before its first and last elections in 2002. The party is infamous for having raised its vote from zero to 7.25 by making promises like free textbooks, or fixing the price of diesel gas to one lira. The CHP should not abandon responsibility, but it could well benefit from that kind of skill to liven up its base.
In the end, however, the CHP will have to pick off disillusioned AK Party voters if it wants to improve on its recent underwhelming performance, which should be possible in this election. Polls place the AK Party vote around the low 40th percentile, which is lower than usual. The party has lost much appeal in the past year, as even senior members have been chafing under President Erdoğan’s domineering presence. On the other hand, the AK Party continues to have by far the best grassroots organization and a superb communication strategy. Erdoğan has developed a grand narrative of Turkey as a rising regional power, which makes him impervious to external shocks. A slowing economy can be chalked up to the “interest lobby” and corruption allegations are mere “tricks of the parallel state.”
Kılıçdaroğlu will have to pierce that fog of inevitability and convince people that his party is a viable alternative. Given recent history, nobody should expect miracles. If his team stays focused, they might manage to move their vote a bit closer to 30 percent. Depending on how the CHP and other opposition parties perform, we might be looking at a coalition government come June. That could freshen up government, or it could bring back the paralysis of the 1990s. Whatever happens, a little political competition after a long rut is welcome.