A list of 10 questions, which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addressed to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairperson, in his address to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) caucus last week, sets the framework for the 2023 election campaign.
First and foremost, Erdoğan’s final question – whether the main opposition leader has the courage to run for president next year – represented a direct challenge to Kılıçdaroğlu and the opposition’s “table for six” and, by extension, reflected a change in the government’s discourse. Some commentators argue that Erdoğan has “picked” the CHP chairperson as his opponent by asking those 10 questions. My sense, however, is that the president will criticize Kılıçdaroğlu in new ways, whether or not the latter chooses to run for office.
I wrote in recent weeks that Kılıçdaroğlu could no longer refrain from running for president next year and that his failure to run would be costly for his own party at this point. Hence, Erdoğan’s final question and his view that the CHP chairperson will clinch the opposition bloc’s nomination. Obviously, Kılıçdaroğlu could exploit that barrage of criticism to impose himself as the opposition’s joint candidate, since he has already undermined presidential hopefuls from his own party.
That the main opposition leader recently brought up his Alevi background, complaining that his identity was being turned into a subject of political debate, even though the government has never mentioned that issue, is linked to his ambition to run. It almost seems like Kılıçdaroğlu wants to engage in that debate himself – just to show CHP and the “table for six” that his identity does not stand in the way of his candidacy. For the record, that is a perfectly understandable tactical move. Unlike in 2018, however, Kılıçdaroğlu’s failure to contest next year’s election is likely to fuel criticism that he keeps backing away from the fight and instead wants to pull the strings through the proxy of the “table for six.”
Top four questions
Erdoğan’s top four questions to Kılıçdaroğlu, in turn, related to counterterrorism, NATO, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean – in other words, national security and foreign policy. Those questions are closely linked to three recent moves by the Turkish government: Defending Turkey’s national interests from Greece, exposing the hypocrisy of Turkey’s NATO allies vis-à-vis terrorism on the occasion of Sweden and Finland’s membership applications, and an imminent counterterrorism operation in northern Syria against the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian component.
Obviously, those three issues will be at the top of Turkey’s political agenda this summer – and, possibly, until the 2023 election. The president will certainly frown upon the half-baked answers he will receive from Kılıçdaroğlu and the “table for six.” Instead, he will demand concrete decisions. If the opposition bloc adopts a certain approach toward Turkey’s fight against YPG that is designed not to upset the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – the PKK’s political wing– it will face criticism over its apparent lack of commitment to national issues.
Meanwhile, the rest of Erdoğan’s questions related to Kılıçdaroğlu’s commitment to “lies, slander, incitement and threats,” his links to foreign powers, and whether he was prepared to kick out politicians, who committed fraud or have links to terrorist groups, from his party.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s responses were intended to signal that he was more nationalist than Erdoğan. For that purpose, he made certain accusations over counterterrorism and foreign policy. Whereas the main opposition leader condemned terrorism in general, he refrained from mentioning the YPG and Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) specifically. He also provided a vague answer on his commitment to cross-border military operations: “We will support the right ones and we won’t support the wrong ones.” Even though Erdoğan’s question was quite specific, that answer suits the chairperson of the CHP, which voted against Turkey’s military presence in Iraq and Syria at Parliament.
Arguing that the government was exploiting foreign policy for domestic politics, Kılıçdaroğlu urged Erdoğan to “take (necessary) steps regarding the occupied and militarized islands in the Aegean if you dare.” Unwilling to antagonize the Western governments or the YPG, Kılıçdaroğlu thus mischaracterized himself as a “hawk” vis-à-vis Greece.
In response to Erdoğan’s questions about domestic politics and the main opposition party, too, did Kılıçdaroğlu stick to his all-too-familiar politics of lying.
The back and forth over Erdoğan’s 10 questions suggests that the election campaign will be tense and full of exchanges. The various arguments related to foreign policy, national security, the economy and domestic politics will be virtually inseparable, too. The distinction between “us” and “them” – which is part of the nature of politics – will manifest itself in many areas.
The various political parties will resort to polarization in an attempt to consolidate their respective base. At the same time, they will develop positive rhetoric to inspire hope in new voters – especially young people and the undecided. We will thus observe both phenomena simultaneously. In the end, whoever comes up with the most successful blend will receive the largest amount of votes. As the CHP leadership taps into the “Gezi spirit” to consolidate its base, the People’s Alliance will oppose foreign links.
In the end, it would appear that many parties will criticize the West in different shades within the context of “true nationalism.”