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Turkey’s Opposition Can’t Win Without the Working Class

Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s abandonment of the left and his embrace of allies’ neoliberal economics could cost him the election.

By , a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP)  candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during a rally in Canakkale, Turkey, on Apr. 11.
Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during a rally in Canakkale, Turkey, on Apr. 11.
Turkey's Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during a rally in Canakkale, Turkey, on Apr. 11. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has a realistic chance of defeating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the upcoming presidential election on May 14. Erdogan’s slow response to the devastating earthquake in February has undermined popular support for him.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has a realistic chance of defeating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the upcoming presidential election on May 14. Erdogan’s slow response to the devastating earthquake in February has undermined popular support for him.

Read more of FPs coverage of Turkey’s pivotal elections.

The most recent poll by ORC on April 12 puts Kilicdaroglu ahead with close to 49 percent support, and Erdogan getting just 41.5 percent. The average of nine different polls puts Kilicdaroglu ahead with 48.3 percent against 43.8 percent for Erdogan and 5.5 percent for third party candidate Muharrem Ince. In that case, Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan would face off in a second round, since a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the votes to get elected.

A second round could be dangerous for the challenger, who will need support from every corner—especially from Turkey’s poor and working-class voters. But Kilicdaroglu seems to believe he must cater to the right on economic issues to win, while at the same time appearing to challenge Turkish nationalism, a combination that could put him on the path to defeat.

The outcome of Turkey’s presidential election will be decided by three key constituencies: Turkish nationalists, Kurds, and the working class.

Kilicdaroglu has so far succeeded in assembling a coalition of secularists, Islamic conservatives, and Turkish nationalists. He has also secured the endorsement of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). That is a unique achievement, which bespeaks the widespread discontent with Erdogan across a wide variety of constituencies that otherwise have little, if anything, in common.

But Kilicdaroglu is facing mounting difficulties in his attempts to reconcile the conflicting interests and demands of the disparate forces that have rallied in support of him. While his Turkish nationalist ally, the far-right Good (Iyi) Party, refuses to consider even talking with the HDP, the HDP expects that Kilicdaroglu, if he wins, will embark on talks with them on building a new republic.

The outcome of Turkey’s presidential election will be decided by three key constituencies: Turkish nationalists, Kurds, and the working class, with the latter partly overlapping with the other two. Broadly defined, including some white-collar workers, the working class represents 70 percent of the workforce. Historically, the working class in Turkey has rallied to conservative parties, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP)— Erdogan’s party—has been no exception. This is mainly because the working class has been shaped by the conservative values of its rural origins, and the right has won these voters over by championing their religious culture.

Although he is still leading in the polls, Kilicdaroglu will nonetheless be at a disadvantage against Erdogan in a second round, as he in fact can only be certain of the full support of one of these three constituencies: the Kurds.

Kilicdaroglu faces two obstacles that he will have to address in order to win: the issue of nationalism and the perception, notwithstanding present deep economic troubles, that Erdogan—given his overall record over the past two decades—can fix problems and attend to the needs of the socially disadvantaged. In the first case, Kilicdaroglu must succeed in striking the right balance between Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, offering freedom to Kurds without appearing to be endangering national unity—a near-impossibility. In the second case, he needs to convey a message of social change that sways the working class, a majority of which Erdogan still carries, and to whose plight Kilicdaroglu has so far paid insufficient attention.


Winning over the Kurds has exposed Kilicdaroglu to criticisms from Turkish nationalists, which could prove fatal for his chances. Erdogan supporters in Turkish media are cultivating the image of Kilicdaroglu as being in cahoots with Kurdish separatists, claiming that he would sell out national security interests and do the bidding of the United States, the alleged patron of the opposition. Statements in the Turkish press by leading representatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish political movement in Turkey have done nothing to improve Kilicdaroglu’s standing among Turkish nationalists.

Ahmet Turk of the HDP stated that imprisoned party leader Abdullah “Ocalan will be freed the day after the election” while Murat Karayilan of the PKK announced (quoted in Sabah among other media) that “ on May 14 not only a president but a system will be chosen.” HDP representative Sirri Sakik said “we are going to change this one hundred year old republic.”

Kilicdaroglu, who in 2021 stated that his party will oppose all cross-border military interventions in Syria and Iraq (which have been undertaken against the PKK and its affiliates) in the future, must dispel the suspicion that he would show leniency toward the PKK. To do that, he needs to state unequivocally that he expects the U.S. government to cease its support for the PKK-linked Kurdish militants in Syria and that Turkey will not hesitate to take action in order to protect its national security interests.

Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu should reiterate his earlier vow that Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish HDP, will be freed, and pledge to free other elected representatives of the HDP as well. His message must be that democratic reform at home will be coupled with a firm commitment to the preservation of national security interests, and that the PKK statelet in Syria will not be tolerated.

More importantly, Kilicdaroglu must take aim at neoliberal capitalism. The CHP is officially a social democratic party, but it has—like many European social democratic parties—changed its class composition as it has become an exclusive party for the middle and upper middle classes and moved to the right on economic issues. This mirrors the transformations of British, French, and Scandinavian social democrats. But the CHP’s estrangement from the working class also has  to do with the cultural gap that separates its secular middle-class base from the religiously conservative working class.


To win, Kilicdaroglu must remind working-class voters that Erdogan’s party has catered to the business class, ensuring, among other things, that wages are low, as trade union activities have been strictly curtailed. According to official statistics, approximately 14 percent of the workforce is unionized, a drastic drop from 58 percent when the AKP came to power. But the real number is likely even lower, around 10 percent—when informal employment is taken into consideration—and strikes are regularly banned.

As a result, social and economic inequality has increased dramatically during the Erdogan era. According to the 2022 Word Inequality Report, by the Paris-based World Inequality Lab, the richest 10 percent of Turkey’s population earn 23 times more income than the bottom 50 percent.

The report also reveals that although Turkey’s national wealth has more than doubled in the last 25 years, wealth inequality has increased during the AKP’s two decades in power, with the bottom 50 percent possessing only 4 percent of national wealth, 40 percent in the middle owning 29 percent and the wealthy 10 percent owning 67 percent of the national wealth. But Erdogan’s party has still retained the loyalty of the exploited lower classes by providing cheap housing and basic health care, and by appealing to their religious conservatism.

While Kilicdaroglu has embraced religious conservatives and reassured them that the historically secularist CHP has no issue with Islam, he has not taken the next step of reconciling his party with the working class.

In order to keep his right-wing dominated opposition alliance together, Kilicdaroglu has refrained from advocating economic redistribution and for the restoration of labor rights.

Kilicdaroglu has stated that “savage capitalism” and neoliberalism have wreaked havoc on the planet and said he would join forces with activists and politicians around the world—such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders—dedicated to a more equitable distribution of wealth and incomes. However, partly in order to keep his right-wing dominated opposition alliance together, Kilicdaroglu has refrained from pushing for economic redistribution and for the restoration of labor rights. But in an election that has for all intents and purposes been reduced to a choice between two versions of the same right wing, Kilicdaroglu will have difficulty convincing voters, notably the working class, that his leadership will truly make a difference.

Although there is broad agreement among the opposition—from Islamic conservatives to socialists and communists—that the priority is to rid Turkey of Erdogan, it should also be clear that this alone is not going to be enough to ensure the defeat of authoritarianism. Indeed, Kilicdaroglu’s main shortcoming is his unwillingness to recognize this and to confront the crippling political legacy of right-wing rule that has condemned Turkey to some version or another of authoritarianism for the last century.

Instead, what Kilicdaroglu appears to be offering is a restoration in all but name of the original AKP, which, like the opposition alliance he leads, was an alliance of free-market conservatives and Kurds. But that was also the party that paved the way for the authoritarian edifice that Erdogan has erected, and the proposition that democracy can be restored in alliance with former lieutenants of Erdogan is counterintuitive.

A particularly striking case in point is Sadullah Ergin, a former AKP justice minister who has been selected to head the CHP list to parliament in the Cankaya district of Ankara in the parliamentary election that will be held simultaneously as the presidential election. As justice minister, Ergin oversaw the mass incarcerations of dissidents—including military officers, politicians, journalists, and intellectuals—who were wrongly accused of having plotted a coup against the AKP government. Some angry CHP supporters argue that Ergin should stand trial and not be elected to parliament to represent the party.

While Kilicdaroglu’s deference to the right will deny him the support of the majority of the working class, it may also turn off some core CHP supporters who are middle-class progressives and nationalists.

Like right-wing Turkish nationalists who are wary of Kilicdaroglu’s popularity among Kurds, some of these CHP voters may opt for Muharrem Ince, the third candidate in the presidential election. Ince, who was the CHP’s presidential candidate in 2018 but has since left the party, has touched a chord among Turkish nationalist voters with his calls to stand firm against the PKK, receiving 7.2 percent in the April 12 ORC poll. According to the polls, his voters will be evenly split between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu in a second round.


Kilicdaroglu’s belief that winning the presidency requires tacking to the right and not challenging the fundamentals of the socioeconomic order of Turkey, while at the same failing to dispel the growing suspicion among Turkish nationalist voters that he is gravitating toward calling the fundamentals of the nationalist order into question, is a recipe for electoral defeat.

Instead, Kilicdaroglu should take inspiration from the example of his predecessor Bulent Ecevit, a progressive populist who led the CHP between 1972 and 1980, and who is the only leftist so far to have governed Turkey. With his opening to religious conservatives, Kilicdaroglu has to a certain extent revived the tradition that Ecevit introduced when he endeavored in the 1970s to reconcile the left and secularists with religious conservatives.

But Kilicdaroglu lacks both Ecevit’s determination to change the economic system and his nationalist fervor. It was this combination that paid off when Ecevit in 1977—in the wake of his 1974 decision to invade Cyprus in response to Greece’s attempt to annex the island—carried the CHP to its best electoral result to date, 41.4 percent.

Turkey’s history demonstrates that democracy will remain elusive as long as there is no left-wing alternative to a form of conservatism that has mostly led to authoritarian populism. And the electoral record, in turn, shows that right-wing hegemony has only been broken when the left has succeeded in combining a call for social justice and systemic change with respect for popular religiosity and Turkish nationalism.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu can’t afford to neglect offering the working class the prospect of social change, nor can he let suspicions that he is soft on Kurdish separatists linger.

Halil Karaveli is a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Ataturk to Erdogan.

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