A generational change is looming in Turkish politics

New names for the post-Erdogan era signify a generational change in Turkish politics.

al-monitor Ekrem Imamoglu (L), main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Istanbul mayoral candidate, is pictured with his party's Istanbul chair, Canan Kaftancioglu, during a campaign coordination meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, May 22, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Cengiz Candar

Cengiz Candar


Topics covered

prison, turkish kurds, chp, turkish politics, recep tayyip erdogan, mayor, ekrem imamoglu

Sep 13, 2019

Turks were outraged a week ago after hearing that an Istanbul court sentenced Canan Kaftancioglu — the chairwoman of the Istanbul branch of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — to some nine years in prison for tweets she shared seven years ago criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.

She was considered the mastermind behind Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s stunning victory against Erdogan’s candidate in the rerun elections on June 23

Imamoglu had gained more than 800,000 votes compared with the measly 13,000 ballots in the first run. His uncontestable second win in the course of three months was primarily attributed to the efficient and well-organized CHP.

The ridiculous verdict against Kaftancioglu is being interpreted as Erdogan's political revenge and has further diminished the credibility of the Turkish judiciary, which lost its independence long ago and became subservient to the whims of Erdogan, the autocratic president of Turkey.

It is an open secret in Turkey that the CHP would not be able to win the municipalities in major urban centers — Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya and Mersin — without the tacit support of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and its Kurdish constituency that voted en masse in favor of the main opposition candidates.

Albeit tacit, deterring the unspoken alliance between the CHP and the HDP has become a political priority for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their ultranationalist allies.

Imamoglu and Kaftancioglu are the new faces of the CHP. Opposed to the traditional CHP line that remained aloof from the Kurdish political movement, they favored rapprochement with the HDP and the Kurds. Moreover, they consistently indicated their gratitude for Kurdish support. In an unprecedented show of solidarity with ousted Kurdish mayors of the HDP, Imamoglu visited Turkey’s mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir a week ago and met with them. Kaftancioglu already has a reputation of working closely with Kurdish political actors.

Imamoglu's and Kaftancioglu's names are in newspapers and other press outlets every day, indicating a looming generational change with a new political outlook in Turkish politics. Many people tend to see Turkey’s future leaders in them.

Both are young. Imamoglu was born in 1970; Kaftancioglu in 1972. They — like Erdogan — ascended to the political limelight in Turkey’s megapolis and the microcosmos of Turkey: Istanbul.

Almost a year ago, very few were familiar with Imamoglu. He was no more than a mayor of a remote Istanbul district, Beylikduzu. Today — after his brilliant election victory and wrestling Istanbul from the hands of Erdogan, who had made it his power base for the last quarter-of-a-century — Imamoglu is not only a household name but is speculated to be the likeliest successor to Erdogan

Thanks to his family’s conservative origins, he has an appeal that goes much beyond the largely secular-urban middle classes and countryside Alevi constituency of the CHP. An alumnus of Istanbul University, Imamoglu received a bachelor of arts in business administration and a master’s degree in human resources management. He proved to be a shrewd manager by all means when he displayed hundreds of private cars that the previous Istanbul municipality brought to distribute to Erdogan’s cronies.

The chief architect of his election victory, Kaftancioglu, is a medical doctor who specializes in forensic medicine. A graduate of the faculty of medicine of Istanbul University, she made a reputation in the fight against torture and proved to be an ardent human rights activist.

Kaftancioglu is the daughter-in-law of Umit Kaftancioglu, a progressive writer of daily Cumhuriyet who was assassinated by right-wing thugs in the 1980s — the turbulent years of Turkey. Kaftancioglu gathered survivors of those who were killed in extrajudicial killings during the '80s and '90s in Turkey in the organization she founded, The Social Memory Platform. She was in charge of press and public relations of the CHP’s Istanbul branch back in 2011.

While Imamoglu came fore with shrewdness, Kaftancioglu did so with defiance. She recited a strongly worded poem by legendary Communist Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet Ran ridiculing the court that tried her for the tweets she wrote in 2012, implying they are nobody but the tools of the hegemon, i.e., Erdogan.

Therefore, she does not hold the judges responsible for anything negative. The judges referred to the poem Kaftancioglu recited as proof of her nonrepentance and sentenced her to nine years and eight months in prison. Outside the court hall, she made a statement and recited another defiant poem.

This was highly symbolic indeed, as the Turkish public still remembers that Erdogan was imprisoned because of a poem he recited in 1999. A similar future might be awaiting Kaftancioglu if her appeal is denied. Of the current power holders, Erdogan is 65; his main ally, ultranationalist Devlet Bahceli, is 72; and the chairman of the party to which Imamoglu and Kaftancioglu belong, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is also 72.

Apart from Imamoglu and Kaftancioglu, the most promising and bright Kurdish politician of Turkey’s political arena is the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas — he is 46.

One other interesting development that could unseat Erdogan is that his party is pregnant to give birth to two different parties. One will be led by Ali Babacan, considered the economy czar of Turkey during the economically successful first decade of AKP rule. Babacan is also relatively young at 52. He announced he would be forming his party before 2020. The other breakaway party will be formed by Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime minister and foreign minister from Erdogan's era who also succeeded Erdogan as AKP chairman.

The hemorrhage in Erdogan's ranks seems impossible to stop. An opinion poll taken Sept. 1-7 indicates the CHP for the first time as the winner if elections were to be held over the upcoming weekend. Erdogan’s AKP would place second and be seen as losing a considerable amount of votes to its ally the Nationalist Movement Party, with the HDP preserving its ground. The AKP-led alliance's approval rate is around 40%.

It's important to note that the poll was conducted before former AKP heavyweight Babacan announced his intention to form a new political party to rival the AKP — the new party is expected to further diminish the AKP's base.

With Babacan, with an untarnished name to break from Erdogan's party to form a new center-right or liberal party, with the new guard of the CHP represented by the bright figures of both Imamoglu and Kaftancioglu, and if the extremely popular Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas were to be released, a generational change in Turkey's political future may not be impossible.

The big question remains whether Erdogan will concede defeat when that inevitable day comes and relinquish power peacefully.

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