Ankara, Asharq Al-Awsat—With general elections in June fast approaching and rising debate about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to transform the country’s ruling system, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has a busy few months ahead.
President Erdoğan today spends his days based out of a new 1,100-room palace in the capital Ankara, while it is former foreign minister and close confidant Ahmet Davutoğlu who has taken over the post of prime minister. Despite the change in leadership in the highest echelons of the Turkish government, critics say it is Erdoğan—who also resigned as head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—who is pulling the strings.
The uncertainty at the head of the Turkish state, as well as enduring accusations of corruption, form the heart of the CHP’s electoral strategy ahead of the June 7 polls. The party came second in the 2011 general elections, managing to secure a respectable 25 percent of the vote, with current polls indicating they are on course to secure a higher proportion of the vote in June.
With election campaigns not yet in full swing, and anger towards the ruling AKP coming from both liberal secularists and supporters of the Islamist-backed Fethullah Gülen’s organization, Davutoğlu and Erdoğan look to be facing an uphill battle.
In an exclusive interview in Ankara, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu about his party’s electoral strategy, as well as AKP attempts to push through a constitutional amendment and transform Turkey’s ruling system.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your assessment of the performance of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since he became president of Turkey?
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu: First, I would like to emphasize that Erdoğan was elected as the president of the Republic by the people but he ultimately received less votes than he had initially expected. Therefore, he was disappointed. Secondly, constitutionally speaking, Turkish presidents only begin to exercise their legal powers after taking the constitutional oath in front of parliament. But Erdoğan, before taking the presidency, ignored all constitutional laws. The presidential elections law stipulates that candidates for the presidency should resign from their official posts while Erdoğan remained as head of the AKP and the prime minister which constitutionally contradicts Turkish election law. These acts were extremely disturbing to us as a party. As believers in democracy, we respect his taking the oath of office before parliament but we will continue to call on Erdoğan to abide by the oath to be a neutral president. He swore, on his honor, that he would be a neutral president, but his actions suggest that he has no qualms about being biased.
Q: Are you saying that Erdoğan’s actions and approach as president have not changed?
Today, he is acting in precisely the same manner as he did in the past when he was AKP leader and prime minister. So Ahmet Davutoğlu, who Erdoğan bequeathed the premiership to, is in fact not Turkey’s prime minister because he does not, or is not allowed to, use his powers. There is a lot of evidence attesting to this fact. Sometimes Davutoğlu makes a statement only to be criticized or contradicted by the presidential palace. The next day Davutoğlu corrects what he said to be in line with the presidency. The CHP therefore believes that Erdoğan is going beyond the limited powers granted to the president and is now actually working in favor of his party and will continue to breach laws in future elections by publicly calling on people to vote for the AKP.
Q: President Erdoğan has put forward a new “model” of government that would change the system of rule in Turkey from a parliamentary one to a presidential system. What is your view on this?
I repeat this warning on every occasion and particularly in front of our MPs. As long as the CHP has any presence in parliament, Erdoğan will not be able to implement the presidential system in Turkey. We will not allow him to do so. On the other hand, the AKP will not dare to put forward this demand to Turkey’s parliament [so long as we are there]. AKP party members ultimately still do not know what they want, and there is no internal consensus over this issue. Erdoğan wants the presidency to fit his own personal standards but no system in any country can change for the sake of one person or for the purpose of securing the future of a single figure, whether it is Erdoğan or anyone else. We want Turkey to be one of the civilized countries rather than for it to be turned into a country ruled by a dictator. Turkey cannot bear to have future presidents elected in the same twisted way that Erdoğan was elected.
Q: If this is the case, and there is no possibility of Erdoğan’s proposal gaining parliamentary support, why is there all this talk in Turkish political circles about the change of system? Why has Erdoğan even put forward this proposal?
The aim behind Erdoğan’s proposal is to distract public opinion away from the chronic problems facing the country, particularly the economic crisis, corruption and unemployment, which has now reached 5.5 million. In Turkey today, 30 million people are living below the poverty line.
Q: Is there any chance of the AKP being able to push through a constitutional amendment through parliament to change the system of rule?
We are reassured about this issue. Even if we manage to get the majority required, the system of rule in Turkey will not be changed at all.
Q: How is the CHP preparing for the forthcoming parliamentary elections?
We have finalized the party’s election strategy and our various committees and MPs are touring Turkish areas to gauge public opinion and are working in coordination with the party’s central command. Our election campaign will focus on the economic crisis in Turkey, particularly as all opinion polls suggest that unemployment is the top issue the Turkish electorate is dealing with. In addition to this, corruption will also be one of our most important election issues, and this is something that has only worsened during the AKP era. Our goal is to see a Turkey free of corruption and nepotism.
Q: Is the CHP on course to increase the number of seats it has in parliament at the forthcoming elections?
Although we have yet to officially launch our election campaign, and elections are several months off, opinion polls currently suggest that our party could win around 28 or 29 percent of the vote. Therefore, I would say that we will win more than 30 percent of the Turkish vote.
Q: What aspects of Turkish foreign policy do you take issue with?
Turkey today has no diplomatic representation—on the level of ambassadors—in the three most important Middle East capitals: Damascus, Cairo and Tel Aviv. Egypt did not accept our ambassador to Cairo and the reason for this is simply Turkey’s current foreign policy towards these countries. When he was prime minister, Erdoğan fiercely criticized Egypt. We have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of any country of the world. In fact, according to international law no country has the right to interfere in the affairs of any other country. So what Erdoğan did was to follow a foreign policy based on a sectarian basis.
Q: If it came to power, how would the CHP restore ties with regional states?
We would not interfere in the internal affairs of any country and we would work to strengthen cultural, economic and diplomatic ties with Egypt and every other country. Everyone knows that the Palestinian Cause is the fundamental issue in the Middle East. We believe that there cannot be stability until the issue of Palestine is resolved, and that can only happen with the establishment of a free and independent Palestinian state. We reject the irrational and reckless policy of the AKP and we emphasize that our ties with neighboring countries will be based on mutual respect of sovereignty.
Today, there are two million Syrian refugees [in Turkey], the overwhelming majority of whom live in miserable conditions. We would work to restore good relations with the brotherly Syrian state and the Middle Eastern countries in general. We would work to restore stability in Syria in order to allow the refugees to return home.
Q: You stand accused of having ties with the now outlawed Hizmet group of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Is this true?
We are a secular, progressive party that opposes the interference of religious groups in politics. There are no links between us and this group.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Turkish.