THE BLOG

Turkey: CHP Leader Says He Would Consider Stepping Aside for Sarigul

The head of Turkey's leading opposition party said he might consider stepping aside for a more charismatic leader to better challenge the ruling party of Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, who is reeling from high-profile arrests of his party insiders on corruption charges.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader since 2010 of Turkey's oldest political party, the People's Republican Party (CHP) founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, told me in an interview that his commitment to saving democratic secularism at home and in Turkey's foreign policy outweighed his personal political ambitions.

When I asked him if he would consider letting Mustafa Sarigul, a rising star in the party, take the reins if it meant a better chance of replacing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the next general election, slated for June 2015, he said: "I am not doing politics as an attachment to a particular seat. I am in politics for the good of the country, for the development and further democratization of the country. I am not in love with my seat."

Sarigul has declared his candidacy in next March's race for Istanbul mayor, a traditional launching pad for national politics. Erdogan was Istanbul mayor in the mid 1990s. Kilicdaroglu said he would work to get Sarigul elected. "We are going to do it together, this struggle for a more democratic Turkey," " he said. 

The CHP leader spoke to me in a wide-ranging, hour long interview in his Washington hotel suite earlier this month, before the high-profile arrests on Tuesday of 52 people, including the sons of cabinet ministers and the AKP mayor of Istanbul's Faith district.

Erdogan said, "Nobody inside or outside my country can stir up or trap my country." This was a clear reference to the powerful Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, living in self-exile in eastern Pennsylvania, whom I interviewed for The Wall Street Journal in 2010. He was accused and later tried in 2000 and acquitted in 2008 in absentia of trying to overthrow the government.

Gulen heads a multi-million strong movement with followers heavily represented in the police and judiciary, which Erdogan has been reducing through targeted firings. But it is because of this continued presence that Erdogan has accused Gulenists of being behind the arrests.

There was always tension between Erdogan and Gulen but it has now broken out into open warfare. The movement is a powerful electoral base that Erdogan early on tapped in an uneasy alliance with Gulen. But Erdogan's more openly Islamist agenda has not only alienated secular Turks, but also Gulen's followers.

Kilicdaroglu told me that during his stay in the U.S. he did not seek a meeting with Gulen in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives, but the CHP chief met with a movement-affiliated think tank in Washington.

The CHP could gain by forging an anti-AKP bloc with the Gulen movement, whose size is estimated anywhere from two to eight million voters. Early indications are, however, that Gulen supporters are far from sold on the CHP, analysts said.

Asked whether he was trying to form an anti-AKP alliance with the movement, Kilicdaroglu said, "We are with all the groups that are under pressure from the government." He said the CHP was not "following a policy in terms of ethnic identity or in terms of the beliefs, sectarian or otherwise, or any group."

"All we want is to expand the scope of freedom for all these groups, including the one you mentioned [the Gulen movement]," he said. "There are groups that do not think like our party. But we also defend their rights and freedoms."

Gulen's influence is spread by his followers' ownership of a major newspaper and a network of technically advanced private schools in Turkey and abroad.

In an open breach with the Gulen movement, Erdogan recently proposed legislation to close private schools in Turkey. "This initiative is in fact a step against the Gulen movement by the government," Kilicdaroglu said. If the legislation passes, he said the CHP would challenge it in Turkey's constitutional court.

Erdogan, who seeks to change Turkey to a presidential system and then run for the position himself next August, however faces a crucial challenge in March's local elections.

Even if Sarigul were to lose the mayoralty but win a higher percentage of the vote in Istanbul than CHP scores nationally in local elections, he could seize the platform to challenge for the CHP leadership. Kilicdaroglu has never before said that he might be willing to give up the position and the chance to become prime minister.

Sarigul, the mayor of the Sisli district of Istanbul, has portrayed himself as a pro-religious centrist, despite his leftist background. Kilicdaroglu has consistently bashed Erdogan on both domestic and foreign policy in the midst of a deepening gulf in Turkish society between secularists and Islamists that threatens more street violence.

The CHP has not led a government since 1979. Despite deepening secular anger against Erdogan, the prime minister retains a substantial lead in national opinion polls, having underpinned support from religious and nationalist voters with steady economic growth in a volatile region.

A CHP victory in Istanbul could signal whether the AKP is vulnerable. "The local elections that will take place in March of next year will really be a defining moment in Turkey's future, a very critical point in our political history," Kilicdaroglu said.