The Lion Tattoo on Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Back and Turkey's Elections

March 20, 2023

Kılıçdaroğlu appears to have persuaded his coalition partners that a lion with no head, tail, or ears can exist.
Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkiye on March 7, 2023. Photo by Anadolu Images


he story goes that a man from Qazvin, an Iranian city to the northwest of Tehran, decided to get a lion tattoo on his back. Upon feeling the first sting of the needle, however, he immediately interrupts the artist. “What do you think you’re doing? Do not hurt me!” The artist responds that he was trying to draw the lion’s tail. “I do not want the tail,” says the man. “Just focus on the rest!” The tattoo artist attempts to draw the lion’s ear, but the man, irritated by the needle, tells him to “forget the ears and keep working.” He protests again, urging the artist not to draw the lion’s head either. Infuriated, the artist throws the needle to the ground and yells, “What on Earth is this? How can there be a lion without a tail, a head, or ears? Who has ever seen such a lion?”

Maybe no observer of Turkish politics has given it serious thought before, but Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman who used to run Turkey’s Social Security Institution (SGK), has apparently been intent on getting a metaphorical lion tattoo on his back–just like the man from Qazvin in Rumi’s Masnavi.

On November 28, 2022, six opposition leaders, led by Kılıçdaroğlu, made the following announcement: “It’s time for democracy.” According to their proposed constitutional amendment package, which consisted of 156 pages, 84 articles, and nine subheadings, they were ready to oversee Turkey’s transition from the presidential system to parliamentarism. As a matter of fact, they demanded an “strengthened” parliamentary system, not just another system of government. The opposition leaders added that the future president would be elected by the people for a single, 7-year term to exercise only symbolic powers. The elected president’s membership in any political party, too, would be terminated.

What brought the six political parties together?

That was exactly what brought together the six political parties which, in terms of ideology, had absolutely nothing in common. In other words, they only want to remove Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power for more than two decades and won the presidency twice by receiving more than 50 percent in the first round, and to reverse any changes that he has made to Turkey’s political system.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who chairs the opposition bloc’s largest party member, has been clear about these goals all along. In a May 2017 interview with NTV, he made the following remarks: “Assuming that the chairman of a political party would be elected president, how would they swear on their honor to be impartial? Is my honor so cheap? How am I supposed to swear, in the presence of history and the great Turkish nation, that I will be impartial? Won’t people ask me how I could be impartial and a member of a certain political party? The idea of honor is very valuable for this society and in this part of the world.”

Having met for the first time in February 2022, the Table for Six leaders have been hosted by a different political party each time. Together, they made public the following political documents: the constitutional amendment proposal of November 2022 was followed by a 2,300-point document listing common policies under nine categories and 75 subheadings. On the first page of that document, which was supposed to outline how and why they would govern together, they wrote their political parties’ names in alphabetical order (in Turkish): CHP, DEVA, Democratic Party, Future Party, IYI Party, and Felicity Party. Each chairperson signed the document accordingly. After all, given each party’s existing amount of power in parliament, the junior partners are basically irrelevant. Moreover, pollsters have projected that none of the four fringe parties enjoy enough popular support to clear the opposition bloc’s proposed 3 percent national threshold.

The role of small parties in the Nation’s Alliance

Still, they have a very important role to play as the CHP hasn’t won a single popular election except under the single-party system, when citizens cast their votes publicly and the vote count took place in secret. Likewise, the probability of the CHP winning a popular presidential race alone is zero. That’s why the four opposition leaders, starting with Temel Karamollaoğlu, leader of Felicity Party, represent political traditions that in the past have campaigned on the important issues for Turkish society that traditionally have prevented the CHP from coming to power. That is also why the fringe parties serve to grant legitimacy to the CHP-led opposition bloc in the eyes of the masses. In a way, voters are told that those movements would block any attempt by the main opposition party to re-embrace its century-old political platform.

What will happen to the influence of those four parties if the Table for Six were to win the presidential election? Ahmet Davutoğlu, who served as foreign minister for five years and prime minister for another two (until his 2016 dismissal by President Erdoğan), currently chairs the Future Party. He answered this very question in a televised interview. “Whether the presidential candidate comes from within the Table or from the outside, they will know that all six party leaders, too, will have the same ‘authority to sign.’ They will be equal in the decision-making process. None will have superiority over another or be one step ahead of the rest. The party leaders will have the same authority to sign as the president regarding all strategic decisions.”

In other words, the leader of a political party that won 30 percent of the vote and another that received just 0.5 percent will exert the same amount of influence over decisions as the popularly elected president who must win more than 50 percent of the votes. Some CHP members and pro-CHP media personalities were shocked to hear Davutoğlu’s comments, complaining that this was not democracy. Yet, CHP chairman Kılıçdaroğlu silenced all critics: “He [Davutoğlu] is right. No distinction will be made between a political party that wins 1 percent and another that receives 25 percent of the vote. They will all be equal at the Table and their chairpersons will be appointed as vice presidents.”

A transition to a new system?

After all, the transition to “strengthened” or “regular” parliamentarism requires 360 parliamentary seats. If the opposition bloc cannot claim so many seats, they will have to operate under the current system. Even if they have enough seats, the transition won’t take place in less than two years. In other words, Kılıçdaroğlu will be the only person that calls the shots and has a guaranteed seat if he wins the presidential race as the Table’s joint candidate. In fact, it won’t matter if one or more parties decide to leave the opposition bloc following the government’s formation either.

A major political crisis erupted at the Table’s 12th meeting on March 2, 2023, as it became clear that the Nation Alliance, which is made of six political parties known as the Table of Six, was going to endorse Kılıçdaroğlu. The crisis continued for 72 hours. All party leaders, except one, had agreed that the CHP chairman was the right candidate.

Meral Akşener, who broke ranks with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to form the IYI Party in 2017, announced—amid insults—that she would never agree to Kılıçdaroğlu’s endorsement and left the Table. She did not stop there either, urging Istanbul’s and Ankara’s CHP-affiliated mayors to run for president. It is highly likely that, deep down, both politicians wanted to answer Akşener’s call. Yet, the Table of Six, which Kılıçdaroğlu had carefully designed, was standing in their path. In the end, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş respectively, were compelled to say that they agreed with their chairman and forced Akşener, who had stirred the pot out of  anger and disappointment, to reclaim her seat.

Attempting to explain in televised interviews why she had left and then agreed to return, the IYI Party chairwoman claimed that the opposition bloc had agreed to her terms. If elected, Kılıçdaroğlu would appoint the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara as his vice presidents. The same day, the Nation Alliance unveiled the “Roadmap for the Transition to the Strengthened Parliamentary System.” The brief document, featuring just twelve articles, served to consolidate presidential candidate Kılıçdaroğlu’s potential role(s).

Article 11 stipulates that “the sitting president’s affiliation with any political party (provided that they have such affiliation) shall be terminated upon the completion of the strengthened parliamentary system.” In other words, if elected, the CHP chairman will continue to lead his party and serve as president, which means that he will be a party-affiliated president. The appointment of Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş as vice presidents, in turn, is covered by Article 12: “The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara shall be appointed as vice presidents at a time of the president’s choosing and with specific assignments.”

Unlike the man from Qazvin, Kılıçdaroğlu appears to have persuaded the following people—and for the time being—that a lion with no head, tail, or ears can indeed exist: Temel Karamollaoğlu, leader of the late Necmettin Erbakan’s party; Ali Babacan, President Erdoğan’s former economy minister and the current leader of DEVA; Ahmet Davutoğlu, President Erdoğan’s former foreign and prime minister; and Meral Akşener, chairwoman of the IYI Party. Now, he just needs to persuade Turkey and the world.

Kılıçkaya worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet and Milliyet newspapers. In 1992 she moved to Paris and completed her studies in International Relations. After returning to Turkey in 2009, Kılıçkaya started working for Habertürk. In 2016, she formed a three-part documentary on DAESH.