There are few things more valuable in politics than the capacity to surprise. With this in mind, recent events within Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), mark a potentially important moment in the career of party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. His ousting of the party’s secretary general, the unreconstructedly old-school Önder Sav, was unexpectedly swift, decisive and direct. As a result, many voters will be adjusting upwards their assessment of Mr Kılıçdaroğlu.
These developments could not have come at a better time for the CHP or for Turkey. It is a truism at this stage to note that the absence of an effective opposition is one of the most dangerous imbalances in the political system here. For a range of reasons, the CHP is currently the only serious potential challenger to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, it is hobbled by having let itself fall so far behind the AKP in terms of political and electoral sophistication. And with less than eight months left until the next election, there is a limit to the extent of the rebuilding that is feasible. But last week, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu moved himself and his party ahead of the curve that most people were forecasting for them.
Importantly, he did so at a time when his standing in the country was beginning to show signs of dangerous precariousness. When he was elected leader of the CHP in May this year, his manner—reasonable, polite, a little diffident—was received as a breath of fresh air after the impotent posturing of his predecessor, Deniz Baykal. However, the stakes quickly changed when Mr Kılıçdaroğlu began to be judged not in comparison with Mr Baykal, but in competition with the prime minister, Mr Erdoğan.
Thus far, it has been a one-sided contest between the two men. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s soft-spoken politeness has been no match for the bruising politicking that has made Mr Erdoğan one of the most successful leaders in this country’s history. The ineffectiveness of the CHP’s campaigning for September’s referendum raised questions about Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s political nous. (It takes a tin ear for political mood music to have tried to counter the AKP’s democratisation rhetoric by campaigning on nuts-and-bolts issues such as pensions and protectionism.) Moreover, his inability to take a position (any position) and stick to it on key dividing lines in Turkish politics, such as the headscarf, has raised questions about his strength of character.
Consequently, before last week Mr Kılıçdaroğlu was increasingly being dismissed as an ineffective politician with no hope of levering the AKP government from power. The word that people have instinctively been reaching for when seeking to distill their disillusionment with him is: weak. This is not an adjective that a would-be leader can afford to have attached to him.
How much has the show-down with Mr Sav done to repair Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s image with the voters, whose support he so desperately needs if he is to make significant inroads into the AKP’s parliamentary dominance next June? In and of itself, probably not that much. But it greatly increases his room for manoeuvre, for a while at least. First, it will win him the right to another hearing from the electorate. Many of those who had given up on Mr Kılıçdaroğlu as too weak to succeed will now hold that judgement in reserve while they wait to see what happens next in the CHP. Second, his decisive victory over internal CHP opponents should increase his policy-making freedom. In theory, he should now be able to start repositioning the CHP with a view to electoral success rather than to the demands of party in-fighting.
To say that the odds are still stacked against him would be an understatement. Speaking last week, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that “we have destroyed the empire of fear within our party.” It is a good rule of thumb in politics that if you use the phrase “empire of fear” to refer to your own colleagues then your party is in major trouble. That is clearly still the case with the CHP. Even if marginalising Mr Sav succeeds in clearing the decks for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s new team, there will be much painful rebuilding to be done before the party begins to look and act like a recognisably modern political force.
That process will take much longer than the eight months available between now and the next election. But by forcing his party down the road of reform last week, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu has done his country a service.