Turkey’s pro-secular main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (RPP, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi - CHP in Turkish) will witness a leadership race between party’s current chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and parliamentary group leader Muharrem İnce in RPP’s extraordinary congress on 5-6 September 2014. After the last defeat at Presidential elections earlier in this month, the party delegates (a total of 1180) will now decide on who to lead the party in the next general elections in 2015.
Party’s current chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, 66, became the party’s new leader in 2010 following a sex-tape scandal which targeted party’s long-term serving chair Deniz Baykal. Nicknamed as “Gandhi” after India’s legendary leader, Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu seemed to be the perfect name to replace Baykal because of his positive image thanks to his struggle against the corrupt members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). Kılıçdaroğlu, during his four years of party presidency, tried everything to expand party’s voter base but his success stayed very limited. Baykal’s RPP was already getting % 20-23 of the total votes, Kılıçdaroğlu increased party’s votes only to % 26-28. Moreover, he lost three elections (2011 general elections, 2014 local elections, 2014 presidential elections) against JDP’s charismatic Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is a fact that we cannot explain Turkey’s Islamic transformation solely with the success or failure of political parties or leaders, since this transformation is rather based on new demographic realities and problems related to Turkey’s modernization and urbanization. However, RPP members and pro-secular groups in Turkey expected Kılıçdaroğlu to provide a more consistent and comprehensive program to combat against radical Islamism, which he failed to do. But Kılıçdaroğlu is still powerful among party delegates and he is the favorite candidate before the congress. Now that his “undefeatable” political rival Mr. Erdoğan steps up into Çankaya Palace as the new President of the Republic, Kılıçdaroğlu will try to convince party members and delegates that he could do much better against Ahmet Davutoğlu, new chair of JDP. Kılıçdaroğlu is an honest and European type social democratic politician, but the problem is that political parameters of Turkey greatly differ from Europe. As an Alevi and Zaza, Kılıçdaroğlu’s identity represents Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities which is a great disadvantage in Turkey, since populist politicians like Mr. Erdoğan frequently uses his Sunni-Turkish identity (dominant and majority identity in Turkey) to attack on his political rivals like Alevi Kılıçdaroğlu or Kurdish-Zaza Selahattin Demirtaş. Another disadvantage of Kılıçdaroğlu is that his efforts to bring RPP closer to pious segments in the country, might alienate classical pro-secular voters of the party.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s main problem is to unite fragmented oppositional groups including social democrats, socialists, Kemalists, secular Turkish nationalists, secular Kurds, Alevis and non-Muslim minorities. Especially bringing together secular Turkish nationalists and secular Kurds is a great problem for Kılıçdaroğlu. If he is reelected as the party chair, Kılıçdaroğlu might try new social democratic openings inside the country, such as continuing to peace process and negotiation talks with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, supporting Kurdish education, supporting all ethnic and religious minorities in the country and granting greater autonomies to municipalities in order to convince Kurdish and socialist voters. In order to take support from secular nationalists (mostly NAP-Nationalist Action Party voters), Kılıçdaroğlu might keen on a new kind of foreign policy which would boost nationalism and better relations with the Turkic communities. For instance, he could promote developing relations with the Turkic countries and other Turkish communities around Turkey (Turkmens in Iraq and Syria and Turkish Cypriots for instance) as well as more active struggle against radical Islamist terrorist organizations like the ISIS.
The other candidate, Muharrem İnce, 50, is known as the “Robespierre of RPP” with his excellent and enthusiastic speeches within the Turkish Parliament targeting mostly Erdoğan and other JDP members as well as Kurdish secessionist and terrorist groups. He became well-known by his heated speech videos that found immense popularity on internet. İnce is more nationalist (ulusalcı) compared to Kılıçdaroğlu, but at the same time he seems more careful about protecting secularism in the country which might attract pro-secular groups who are extremely afraid of JDP’s Islamist aims in recent years. İnce’s nationalism might disturb Kurds and prevent RPP to take more votes from Kurdish voters, but it should be stated that Kurds already do not vote for RPP for many decades. Kurds are much more pious compared to Turks who live in the western parts of the country and they generally vote for Islamist or pro-Kurdish parties. Thus, İnce’s nationalist rhetoric might increase RPP’s votes in the Western and Central Anatolia and will not make too much difference in terms of Kurdish votes.
Muharrem İnce is also very assertive compared to Kılıçdaroğlu. He claims that he will make his party the first party in the country in the next elections and if he could not do this, he will resign from his post. It is a fact that İnce lacks diplomatic experience, but he could easily improve himself if he is elected as party chair with the help of talented advisors. Another advantage of İnce is that, Turkish people do not like ordinary people who act in civilized manner but rather prefer extremist figures like Erdoğan. Thus, İnce’s nationalism might attract average Turkish voters. İnce took the support of all important opponents of Kılıçdaroğlu within the party including Deniz Baykal, Önder Sav and Emine Ülker Tarhan. However, it still seems difficult for İnce to get elected in this extraordinary congress since delegates of the party are arranged from the party headquarters, by the current chair Kılıçdaroğlu. İnce’s leadership ambitions might turn into reality if Kılıçdaroğlu will not do well in 2015 general elections this time against Davutoğlu.
Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 Listen one of his most famous speeches; http://webtv.hurriyet.com.tr/2/56364/0/iste-muharrem-ince-nin-meclis-teki-konusmasi.