Briefing: the CHP’s primaries

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu gives his party’s members a voice where no other leader dares
CHP supporters in Lüleburgaz

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu gives his party’s members a voice where no other leader dares

CHP supporters in Lüleburgaz
CHP supporters in Lüleburgaz

With a little over two months until the general election, you might think it’s not particularly surprising that members of Turkey’s main opposition party are meeting around the country this weekend to pick their parliamentary candidates.

But surprising it is. Party membership has been little more than symbolic in Turkey, where parliamentary nominees have been handpicked by party leaders and their advisers for the past two decades. It’s always been an opaque process – prospective candidates most find a place in exchange for money, favour or influence.

So Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), deserves praise for announcing primaries in a little over half of Turkey’s provinces. He’s putting his own name forward in Izmir, although it is one of the party’s strongholds.

Not everyone gets a vote

CHP primaries 2015
Province by province: where the CHP will primaries – and where it won’t

But there is a catch: not every CHP member will have a say. Under the plans, Turkey’s 85 electoral districts are divided into four groups, with local members given a different say on the party nominees in each:

  • Group A contains 160 seats and members here will pick all of the CHP candidates for parliament;
  • Group B contains 167 seats and includes Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, the country’s largest cities. Here the party leadership has reserved 28 spaces on local lists but will allow members to fill the remaining spaces;
  • Group C contains 76 seats, of which eleven are reserved by headquarters. The CHP will allow members to vote on their nominees but it will be a consultative ballot and the outcome won’t be binding;
  • Group D, containing 147 seats, will have be no primary at all and the party leadership will select all the candidates.

The system means the party leadership is reserving 186 places for itself, while CHP members will be able select just shy of two-thirds of the party’s 550 nominees through primaries.

But how many of the primary seats are actually winnable?

Keeping the spoils

The key group here is Group B, where the CHP took more seats (60) at the last election than any other group of provinces. The party leadership has reserved 28 slots for itself here using a “zipper system”.

This means that in Istanbul’s first district, for example, nominees in slots 1, 3, 5 and 7 of the CHP list will be picked by the leadership. The remaining slots will be filled through the primaries. A similar method is in place for Ankara and Izmir.

The zipper system: leadership and primary-defined seats in Group B
The zipper system: leadership and primary-defined seats in Group B

This rather complicated table shows the leadership has kept half the winnable seats in most Group B districts for itself.

The seats in Group A, where primaries will run in full with no interference from headquarters, are surprisingly not all the dregs of CHP support. Districts like Edirne and Kırklareli in the northwest are genuine strongholds, and the party is competitive in Balıkesir, Manisa and Ordu. But Nevşehir and Konya are far less likely to go the CHP’s way and you could argue a primary saves the leadership the bother of having to pick candidates destined to lose.

Not entirely prepared to relinquish control in some provinces

The most confusing group is C, where primaries have been happening in recent weeks but the leadership holds an effective veto over the outcome. These include coastal towns like Adana, Mersin and Trabzon where the CHP needs to make solid gains in the coming election. Perhaps the leadership isn’t quite prepared to entirely relinquish control here.

Group D is mostly made up of seats in the east, where the left-wing vote largely goes to the pro-Kurdish HDP. But it is a surprise to see Eskişehir – a Central Anatolian town with a CHP mayor – here.

How will they vote?

CHP members living in Group A, B or C districts who have been registered members of the party since 31 December 2014 will be eligible to take part in a primary on Sunday.

They will vote by putting a mark next to their preferred candidate. They can vote for as many candidates as there are spaces available in their district, but must vote for at least half of them.

In Izmir’s second district primary, for example, where there are 80 candidates including Mr Kılıçdaroğlu, members can vote for up to 10 candidates but must put a mark next to at least five. Ballots containing too few or too many votes will be invalid.

Heavyweights in contention

Clearly, the CHP leadership has been loath to relinquish control of all its winnable seats to primaries at once. But this is still a genuine attempt to open the party up to its members. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s decision to run for a primary slot himself is a strong endorsement of the system.

Only example of mass democracy in a Turkish party this century

What’s more, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu has insisted the number 1 slot in each of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir’s electoral districts are reserved for women. That will make him the only leader not to top his own party’s candidate list.

And the number of party heavyweights putting themselves forward to primaries shows the system has appeal. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s predecessor as leader, the dogmatic Deniz Baykal, has put his name forward in his native Antalya. Mustafa Sarıgül, the defeated mayoral candidate in Istanbul last year, is running in Istanbul’s second district, while the party’s 78-year-old former general secretary Önder Sav has put himself forward in Ankara.

This weekend’s primaries are a sea change in the way Turkey’s main opposition party functions. Giving its three quarters of its 1 million members the chance to pick their own parliamentary candidates is the only example of mass democracy seen in a Turkish party this century.

The move won’t propel the CHP into government as quickly as this summer, but it will make the party more open, accountable and – crucially – electable in the future. Watch this space.

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