Who is Canan Kaftancioglu?

Politics /

If Turkish President Recep Tayypip Erdogan is conservative and authoritarian, Canan Kaftancioglu is his polar opposite. A recent Foreign Policy report profiled the Istanbul district head for the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Her staunchly liberal views include a pro-LGBTQ stance and support for feminism. In short, Katfancioglu is the anti-Erdogan, and she may have a role to play in his downfall if she can avoid prison first.

Katfancioglu rode onto the scene – literally, she rides a motorcycle – in 2011. Her first foray into politics came during the time she was she studying forensic medicine. Kaftancioglu defended the right of veiled women to enter universities, some of which forbid covered students. Upon graduation, she joined the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey before co-founding the Collective Memory Platform (CMP).

CMP is an initiative to pursue justice for families who have lost loved ones to unsolved political assassinations. For Kaftancioglu, CMP  was personal for Kaftancioglu – her father, a journalist, was murdered in 1980 by suspected Turkish nationalists.

In 2011, she joined the CHP as head of press, culture, and communication before quickly rising to deputy chairperson for Istanbul. In 2018, she was elected as chair for the party’s Istanbul division. A year later, her party stole the Istanbul mayorship from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a shocking election.

Kaftancioglu’s contribution to Turkish politics begins with her transformational ideology within the party itself. Behind the scenes, she has organised grassroots campaigns, coordinated with opposition parties, and attracted young voters, as Foreign Policy reported.

“The CHP’s previous approach, and there are still a number of people who feel this way, is that they have the right ideas and if the people don’t understand them, it’s the people who are at fault,” said Ilter Turan, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “I think Canan Kaftancioglu represents the other, more genuinely democratic approach where you actually have to go out and persuade people that you have the right ideas.”

It was Kaftancioglu who orchestrated the “Radical Love” strategy that saw the CHP enjoy success during last year’s elections. Instead of the divisive nature of Erdogan, CHP candidates such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu preached peace and unity.

“They were nonconfrontational and nonpolarizing. They actually tried to reach out to [demographics] that CHP regulars would consider to be outside their constituencies,” Turan said.

Kaftancioglu’s most surprising characteristic is her acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide. For a Turkish politician to publicly admit their government’s role in the genocide is even more incredulous when considering that only 32 states have recognized it.

She also tweeted that Ankara is a “serial killer” and that “I refuse to say we are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal, but we are his comrades.” Furthermore, Katfancioglu rebuked a 2017 referendum that enabled Erdogan by calling it “one-party rule transformed into one-man rule.”

Her views have even earned her scorn from longtime CHP members.

“They hate her. They totally hate her,” said Nevsin Mengu, a columnist familiar with CHP “They see her as an evil woman who came here to divide the CHP. For them this change is terrible. [They think,] ‘The CHP is falling apart.’ It’s not. It’s changing.”

And while she has inspired a new legion of CHP voters and shaken up the party from a ideological perspective, she has come into legal crossfire from Ankara, which her new support may not be able to protect her from.

Kaftancioglu made a career of political activism for others, but now she is in the midst of fighting for her own freedom. Two days after she was elected to her party position, Ankara charged Kaftancioglu with “terror propaganda and insults” against Turkey, BBC reported. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, based on tweets from 2013, but is appealing the decision.

The tweets in question were directed at Erdogan’s crackdown on demonstrators during the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the murder fo three Kurdish activists in Paris who were members of the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party, Voice of America reported.

Kaftancioglu and Imamoglu immediately decried the charges as being politically motivated.

“There is no justice in this country. In Turkey, instead of listening to their conscience, judges look towards the palace (the President’s office),” Imamoglu said following the sentencing.

Should Kaftancioglu win her appeal, she will be free for the next presidential elections, slated for 2023. Erdogan will presumably run again, but CHP has yet to announce a candidate, but some view Imamogul’s path as replicating the successful formula Erdogan once enjoyed, highlighting him as a possible candidate.

Kaftancioglu – who is more at home behind the scenes — will remain instrumental in rallying new voters to turn away from Erdogan. For some voters, they will have never known a life without Erdogan in power. Kaftancioglu may give them their first real shot at a new Turkish leader if she can avoid Erdogan silencing her first.