As soon as he felt a bit safer with regard to the fragile political landscape after his entry as chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), one of the most defining moments for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was to assemble a conference with a limited and secretive attendance that strictly adhered to the Chatham House Rule.
The meeting, which ended with a series of ideas and proposals for a new identity and direction, preceded the “operation” of ousting Önder Sav from the post of secretary-general within a matter of days.
Those with insider knowledge of the meeting cannot conceal their surprise at how quickly Kılıçdaroğlu moved in to “implement” some of the decisive major points underlined in the meeting. One insider commented, “Usually it takes a leader time to absorb the content before acting, but in this case he saw the opportunity and did not hesitate.”
There is a lot of truth in this, showing where Kılıçdaroğlu is moving to turn his chairmanship into leadership, in the slippery, treacherous environment called the CHP. His ensuing steps confirmed that they will either make or break his party.
It is hard to know whether or not he impressed his comrades in the Socialist International, but he clearly displayed the profile of a leader exactly opposite that of Deniz Baykal, his predecessor. Kılıçdaroğlu has the old leftist in his DNA, which helps to establish a common terminology and new prospects with the SI community.
While in Paris he went even further, and did something Baykal never would do: He visited Père Lachaise Cemetery and laid flowers at the graves of two Kurds -- the legendary Marxist director Yılmaz Güney and Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya. He topped his surprise moves with a visit to Diyarbakır, where he met locals and talked about what he calls “the new CHP” attempting to create a “third path” between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) as a “democratic alternative” to shape a “united or allied left” and challenge the current status quo. These remarks came as some politicians even discussed the (remote) possibility of a CHP-BDP alliance in the next elections. Fruitless or far fetched as these moves look, they tell us that Kılıçdaroğlu intends to push his party into new waters.
But, he is only in the beginning of a tough journey. Challenges will be multifaceted, both inside and outside. Kılıçdaroğlu knows that the old Baykal line is an infinite loser, but it is doubtful he knows how to convince party people. For this, he needs to convince himself that the party’s worn out ideology, Kemalism, must at least be sharply revised to harmonize with the democratic left -- a very arduous task. The widely shared belief among the party’s modern flank and outside observers is that leaving behind the legacy of Kemalism is the only way for the party to be integrated into civilian politics and to be “normalized.” This is a precondition for Turkey’s major, chronic issues to be resolved by consensus.
Every step he takes brings the party closer to a watershed. Now, the next issue is whether or not Kılıçdaroğlu will need to hastily assemble an extraordinary congress, possibly before the end of the year. The reason is obvious: He controls only one-fourth of the party assembly, which defines the candidate deputy lists for the next elections. Baykal and Sav lurk in the background and still have considerable power. Should the new leader keep the party assembly intact, he may face an uphill battle and end up breathless. To consolidate his power even more, the need for a congress seems inevitable as days go by.
His own identity as an Alevi from Dersim is both an asset and a disadvantage. As this helps him win back the Alevis and warm up to Kurds, the old elite of the CHP feel increasingly uncertain about his intentions. Kılıçdaroğlu has so far moved in the area of what is possible, and it may not be enough. At the moment he is on a move into the unknown.