Erdogan's electoral nemesis aims to strike again for democracy, women's rights

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Canan Kaftancioglu.
Canan Kaftancioglu. © Dorian Jones

Canan Kaftancioglu, the mastermind behind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's biggest electoral defeat now has her sights set on ousting Erdogan himself. Provided she can stay out of jail. 


Addressing a vast crowd of delirious supporters celebrating the end of Erdogan's nearly three-decade dominance of Istanbul, newly elected mayor Ekrem Imamoglu standing arm in arm, paid tribute to Canan Kaftancioglu.

Kaftancioglu, as head of Istanbul's Republican People's Party (CHP), is credited as the architect of Imamoglu's 2019 victory. But two years on from masterminding Turkey's most prominent political shock in decades, Kaftancioglu is now eyeing a bigger prize ousting Erdogan himself.

Kaftancioglu receives a warm welcome as she arrived in Istanbul's Sultangazi district, a poor city suburb and an election stronghold of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The district is mostly made up of migrants to the city that traditionally support the AKP. Erdogan, himself from a family migrating from Turkey's impoverished Black Sea region, portrays himself as a man who represents the underdog and is ready to stand up to the country's elite. A mantra that once belonged to Kaftancioglu's CHP.

A broad message of inclusion, openness

Touring Sultangazi's shops, small businesses, and a local market, Kaftancioglu advocates her inclusivity message.

A woman wearing a religious headscarf thanks Kaftancioglu and says she loves her for what she's done.

Kaftancioglu's CHP is a fiercely pro-secular party and is portrayed by Erdogan as anti-religious because of its past support of a ban on religious dress in state buildings. 

But Kaftancioglu is leading her party's efforts to reach out across deep political divides to the religious and the country's Kurdish minority, which also traditionally views the CHP with suspicion if not hostility.

Kaftancioglu sees her warm reception in a traditional stronghold of the AKP as proof of her strategy that she dubs as 'radical love'.

"After winning the metropolitan elections here, people have started to view the CHP with hope," Kaftancioglu said.

Successful strategy of 'radical love' 

"Five years ago, it wouldn't have been easy to come to this part of the city and talk so easily with people. Even though people here vote for other parties, they're interested in us."

Kaftancioglu is a success story of Turkey's republic. She came from a humble background in the Black Sea region when she secured a place at one of Turkey's top universities in medicine, becoming a forensic doctor.

She says she uses the skills of a forensic doctor in her preparations for national elections, expected to be held earlier than the scheduled 2023.

 "In terms of ballot box security, we want the model we used in Istanbul to be transferred to all our branches across the country," Kaftancioglu explained.

"It's vital that our entire organization is trained in ballot box security," she added. "I'm a forensic doctor, which means I know it's important to work methodically. It's what we need to do."

CHP faced widespread criticism for being disorganized and inefficient, especially when it comes to ballot security. In the 2018 general election, the party's election monitoring ended in humiliation when its computer system collapsed on polling night.

Unprecedented effort behind Istanbul victory

But the Istanbul mayoral election saw the CHP carry out unprecedented monitoring, all quarterbacked by Kaftancioglu.

However, changing attitudes in Turkey's oldest party has not been straightforward.

"When you're working with men, you constantly hear that they know better, that they can do better," she said. "As a woman in politics, you have to work two, three, four times harder than men. In Turkey, there's this attitude that, yes, women can work, they can produce, but they can't manage. There's this prevalent misconception that when it comes to management, men do better."

But with political prominence comes the threat of prison.

In the aftermath of the Istanbul victory, Kaftancioglu was sentenced to ten years in jail for spreading terrorist propaganda through social media postings eight years ago. She is appealing the verdict.

Erdogan, in January, labeled her a terrorist and accused her of being behind ongoing student protests. The growing legal and government attacks on Kaftancioglu are a sign of her success.

She's stong and capable, therefore she's a threat

"There are attacks on her; we can understand from this reaction she is seen as a threat because she is strong and capable of doing things in the party," said Nazli Okten of Istanbul's Galatasaray University.

"I think she is one of the most important figures in Turkish politics throughout this ten years," Okten added, "that's why some people saw her quote-unquote as dangerous because she wants to change things."

With family members and friends of victims of political murders, Kaftancioglu is aware of the risk faced by people who seek change in Turkey.

"There are threats, and many things are coming my way. The judicial sword is always over my head. But what's the most they can do? A fanatic can come my way and take aim at my life. But there are thousands of people in this country who've lost their lives because of what they believed in. And I have one life like them. But I tell you this, and I say it very clearly: Erdogan will be defeated. Three years ago, when I said we would give Istanbul back to the people again, nobody believed me."


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