The İmamoğlu-Özel era certainly increases CHP’s chances in local elections, at least in Istanbul, where incumbent mayor Imamoglu is genuinely liked and had built a broad political machine encompassing Kurds and some segments of the center-right. On the other hand, Erdogan and his ally MHP leader Bahceli control the state, the media, the courts; and most importantly levers of campaign financing.
Kılıçdaroğlu was blamed for the traumatic defeat in the May elections. CHP delegates elected Özgür Özel, the candidate of the “changes”, as the new chairman of the party at the 38th Congress, indicating their desire to open a new page for the party that is synonymous with Ataturk and the Republic. The new CHP Istanbul Provincial Chairman Özgür Çelik, supported by İmamoğlu, was instrumental in delivering the delegates to Özgür Özel column. It should be understood that Kılıçdaroğlu’s demise in the convention is actually Imamoglu’s victory.
While this article was being written, the members of party’s top decision making bodies had not yet been determined. It will be possible to predict with accuracy new leader Özel’s maneuvering room, only once the list is finalized. However, Özel’s statement of “mobilization for local elections” starting this Monday shows that the birth pains in the party have been postponed until after March 31, 2024—the date of municipal elections.
Naturally, it will take time for CHP to re-establish its identity of a social democratic party that produces realistic solutions with mass appeal to Turkey’s chronic problems again. Still, there is enough ground to think that change of blood will turn the attention of CHP voters back to the party and perhaps inspire the resentful ones to give it another chance.
Ozel’s victory in the CHP brought a second term triumph in Istanbul closer
Imamoglu’s lead in the polls in the Istanbul local elections already triggered a search for a strong rival within the AKP. Names are floating around, but they are not yet strong enough to “take back” Istanbul on behalf of the AKP as a rival to Imamoğlu. Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca and Minister of Internal Affairs Ali Yerlikaya, who is liked by the electorate, are reported to be frontrunners as candidates. However, according to the preliminary polls, these names cannot motivate even some of the AKP voters.
On the other hand, attracting CHP voters who were deeply frustrated by politics after the May defeat to the ballot box, gathering the dispersed Nation Alliance votes under Imamoğlu column, and relations with pro-Kurdish rights party HEDEP (former HDP, and for a brief period Green Left) are complicated problems that Özel must urgently solve.
CHP organization will unite behind İmamoğlu
The biggest battle in the local elections is on the Istanbul front. This requires the CHP organization to exert its weight in unity during the election period. Before the convention, polarization within the CHP had developed a faction with deep resistance to İmamoğlu, who was perceived as a rival to Kılıçdaroğlu. The change of Istanbul Provincial Chairman and CHP leadership strengthened Imamoglu’s control within the party. The organization that will work behind him seems closer to the second victory in Istanbul Municipality.
The leadership change in CHP has also reopened the door to strategic partnership with İYİP
It is obvious that Kılıçdaroğlu-Akşener ties have been completely severed and the door to cooperation was closed by İYİP as long as Kılıçdaroğlu remained in office. Istanbul was always an exception. Even though there was a common working ground between İmamoğlu and Akşener, the extent of support from CHP and İYİP organizations would be a matter of discussion. This dynamic changed with the leadership change in CHP. It is thought that Akşener will be more willing to work with İmamoğlu. Stronger support arising from this cooperation will strengthen İmamoğlu in Istanbul. The fact that İYİP, which announced its candidate in Izmir, did not make a similar statement in Istanbul, literally waiting for the CHP convention supports this expectation.
CHP-HEDEP cooperation for Istanbul is difficult, if not impossible
An important element in Imamoglu’s victory in the previous local elections, especially in the repeat election, was the support he received from Kurdish voters. Turkish nationalist Akşener ignored this support and gave tacit approval. But IYIP now has a very different structure.
HDP’s open support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential election became a problem for the İYİP base. According to what emerged after the elections, the ties between HDP and Demirtaş have already loosened. The new HEDEP management team is closer to the discourse of the PKK leadership than to Demirtaş, currently serving a prison term for sedition despite a final European Court of human Rights injunction to release him immediately.
Rather than cooperating with the CHP in the local elections, it is possible that HEDEP will indirectly support the AKP by nominating a weak candidate. In return, Erdoğan, who wishes to be elected for the third time, by amending the Constitution (that he will bring to the agenda after the local elections) could do some favors of HEDEP, such as ending the practice of sidelining its elected mayors on false charges of aiding and abetting terrorism.
In short, the strength of the opposition bloc in the previous local election is weaker this time. Despite this, Imamoglu’s victory is still the most likely scenario, especially if “change” rhetoric can truly pave the way to reform in CHP, creating hope in the voters.
By Guldem Atabay, economist and columnist
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