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Türkiye: The Fall, Rise and Re-Fall of Kılıçdaroğlu

‘In politics, 24 hours is a very long time.’

—Süleyman Demirel, former President and Prime Minister of Türkiye

Let’s go back to the early days of 2022 when optimism amongst the Turkish opposition was high. After ruling for two decades, right-wing AKP (~NI) was declining in opinion polls; while opposition parties were announcing their idea of ‘strengthening the parliamentary system if they won next year. Many opposition politicians were so sure about winning that some were making exaggerations like ‘Even a can of coke as a candidate could win this election’. Opening a new chapter in the centenary of Türkiye was a dream many hoped.

However, a year later, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (AKP~NI) managed to win a third term as well as gain the parliamentary majority. Not only was the opposition as a whole divided; but even centre-left CHP (S&D), the main opposition party, was internally divided. These recent developments failed to deliver a change in the country, but they triggered a change in the party. And the main actor of this whole story is neither Erdoğan nor any other popular figure but Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of CHP for 13 years. How did he evolve from an ‘unpopular candidate’, to the ‘next President of Türkiye’, to the ‘unwanted leader’ and finally to the ‘former leader of CHP’ in just one year? It is important to observe in three chapters.


Being elected as the leader of CHP in 2010, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was a diverse figure. For some, he was an honest and decent bureaucrat who gained broader support for the party. For others he was a political loser and an uncharismatic politician that changed the party for the worse. His actions were diverse too, ranging from organising a broader march called Justice March in 2017 to supporting a governmental bill that lifted the immunity of parliamentarians, which paved the way for further arrests and prosecutions. Yet, after years of defeats, CHP managed to become successful in the 2019 local elections, winning major metropolitan areas including Istanbul and Ankara.

In hypothetical presidential run-off polls, his name started to appear against Erdoğan, alongside two other names: Ekrem İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul; and Mansur Yavaş, mayor of Ankara. But compared to these two, Kılıçdaorğlu was less successful. Despite this, many major names in the party started to endorse him as the candidate. This started to annoy many opposition voters, especially after Kılıçdaroğlu’s mistakes came out in the last months of 2022.

One example of these hypothetical polls where Kılıçdaroğlu had neck-to-neck results against Erdoğan compared to other candidates, according to a November 2022 poll from Yöneylem (Europe Elects)

Opening discussions on socio-cultural issues which were usually dominated by AKP was a mistake for him because it allowed the government the opportunity to call for another constitutional change that the opposition could not support. Another mistake was planning a visit to Germany while Ekrem İmamoğlu was on trial for ‘insulting state officials’. Kılıçdaroğlu said, ‘I did not expect a sentence’ but İmamoğlu was sentenced, still waiting for ratification by the Court of Appeal.

Even though a possible ban could have prevented İmamoğlu’s future career, still endorsing him for presidential candidacy may have been a turning point, just as Erdoğan became more popular than ever in the late 1990s after being removed from mayorship of Istanbul for reading a poem. But that step was not taken and İmamoğlu was limited to Istanbul again, just like Yavaş in Ankara.

The unpopularity of a possible Kılıçdaroğlu candidacy continued to grow in 2023, until February of that year.

Leaders of the Nation Alliance after declaring Kılıçdaroğlu as the presidential candidate // Photo: CHP-Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi


On 6 February 2023, Türkiye woke up with horrible news. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the southern and central provinces of Türkiye (as well as Syria), followed by a 7.7 magnitude one. It was the deadliest earthquake in Anatolia in the last 16 centuries, with 50,783 people losing their lives.

Anger among opposition voters had been shifted from opposition politicians to the government. After five years of worsening economy, pandemic, wildfires and floods; voters were fed up. By going to the affected areas with all metropolitan mayors, Kılıçdaroğlu’s popularity started to recover. Sharing videos where he criticised Erdoğan on Twitter became popular. He was widely expected to announce his candidacy by 3 March 2023.

After gaining support from four other parties of the Millet (S&D) alliance which were in a better position compared to their voting share, he did not gain the support from Meral Akşener, leader of centre-right İYİ (~RE), who said that she preferred either İmamoğlu or Yavaş to run instead. On 3 March, she left the alliance with a shocking public announcement. The three-day period between Akşener’s departure and her return needs a separate article, but to summarise, since the elections were only two months away, Akşener did not get much public support for her decision. It was a call that should have happened in 2022. Eventually, the alliance was reunited three days later with the idea of İmamoğlu and Yavaş (plus other party leaders of the alliance) being future Vice Presidents while endorsing Kılıçdaroğlu for the presidential race.

The period between 6 March and 14 May was extraordinary for Kılıçdaroğlu. Sharing Twitter videos about his policies and criticisms was gaining more and more attention. He was also leading against Erdoğan in the opinion polls, especially after gaining more and more political endorsements; including the parties of HDP (S&D), YSP (Greens/EFA) and TİP (*), main ingredients of Emek & Özgürlük alliance (S&D|Greens/EFA). His campaign was much more focused on positivity as well. International attention was focused on Turkish elections. After the presidential candidate (and previous CHP candidate) Muharrem İnce withdrew from the race two days before the election, many people dreamed of Kılıçdaroğlu winning, even in the first round. But when the ballot boxes were opened on 14 May, people woke up from the dream.

It was revealed that Kılıçdaroğlu finished second, nearly five points behind Erdoğan. However, because Erdoğan gained 49.5% in a four-way race, a run-off was called. Moreover, Erdoğan’s Cumhur (~NI) alliance won the parliamentary majority. Despite CHP winning 169 out of 600 seats, 39 of these 169 seats were reserved for four other parties of their alliance, with their ideologies ranging from centre-right to hard conservatism. Therefore, CHP had 130 seats left, 16 less than the 2018 elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu changed his campaign from pure positivity to harsh criticism. But despite finishing first in Istanbul and Ankara, first place had not changed. Erdoğan got 52.2% in the second round, meaning he remains the President for a third term. This was a huge disappointment for Kılıçdaroğlu and for the opposition.

At that stage, people expected Kılıçdaroğlu to do the right thing, to resign. Despite his mistakes, some were grateful for his campaign. Paving the way for a new leader could at least make him remembered well by many.

But he did not, and that changed everything.

Özgür Özel, Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership election rival, speaking on CHP National Convention // Photo: CHP – Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi


After treating this election as ‘life or death’ and dreaming of a better future, many opposition voters (especially young voters) were already depressed. So, not resigning was the first problem of Kılıçdaroğlu. Furthermore,  new scandals started to be leaked.

It was known that CHP made a deal with nationalist ZP (*) for a second-round endorsement. However, Ümit Özdağ, leader of ZP, later announced that an additional secret protocol was also signed where they would gain three ministries (including the Interior) and head of National Intelligence if Kılıçdaroğlu won. This was received badly by CHP’s allied parties. Appointing very unpopular names in the executive positions and appointing new advisors that had nothing to do with CHP ideologically also made party voters furious. With Akşener’s call to run in the 2024 local elections without alliance already dangerous for CHP, the party really needed a change inside. So, the road for a new party leadership election in November 2023 had started.

Despite indirectly calling for change, İmamoğlu could not run due to the law preventing mayors from being party leaders at the same time. He endorsed a different name instead: Özgür Özel. Being the leader of the CHP parliamentary group, Özel was a known name in the party. Working closely with Kılıçdaroğlu before made many people question whether he was really a challenger or not. Unlike many party leadership elections in Europe, Turkish parties have indirect elections, with local conventions electing their leaders and provincial delegates who elect provincial heads and national delegates. Therefore, the fate of the party was in the hands of 1,368 national delegates.

The turning point was dissidents winning in Istanbul and nearly 14% of delegates as a block. So the race was close. On election day, Kılıçdaroğlu made an angry speech, blaming both Akşener and party dissidents for ‘treason’, followed by another angry speech after Özel blamed him for giving reserved seats to allied parties.

After the polls closed at 11 p.m. local time, supporters for Kılıçdaroğlu cheered intensively and many believed he had won another leadership election. But the truth was revealed: Özel was actually ahead by 18 votes, two votes less to finish in the first round. Kılıçdaroğlu had one final chance for an honorable exit after being placed second again, and he refused again. Around 3:30 a.m., İmamoğlu (who was the chairman of the convention) announced  that Özel won the race by 276 votes ahead in the second round. A video was later revealed where Kılıçdaroğlu’s supporters were begging him not to withdraw, even if it meant losing again. However, with that, we witnessed a rare moment in Turkish politics: An incumbent leader losing a party leadership race.

With the Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s final dance, despite his age of 75, he still did not withdraw from active politics, looking for an empty bureau to work in Ankara. CHP tries to change under a new leader, Akşener insists on running alone and Erdoğan will rule for another term. Kılıçdaroğlu had many chances; he could have chosen a candidate with a higher probability to win in 2023 or if not, he could have started a new era by simply resigning. He chose none, just to lose four times on a ballot in one year. He chose to play a gamble, and now we are all facing its consequences.