For anyone watching the internal squabbling at Turkey's main opposition party congress over the past two days, it was easy to see how Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has run rings round his rivals, won three elections and stayed in power for 10 years.

Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu's speech to the congress, billed as a festival of democracy, was interrupted on Sunday by a lawmaker wanting to reinstall four-time election loser Deniz Baykal at the head of the party.

All cameras turned to Isa Gok as he harangued Kilicdaroglu.

No one has the right to disturb the peace of the congress, declared the CHP leader as security guards frog marched Gok out of the hall under a hail of plastic water bottles.

The row dominated headlines on Monday, completely subordinating Kilicdaroglu's main message that Turkey under Erdogan had become a post-modern dictatorship.

The CHP congress can have done little to unsettle the prime minister and his AK Party.

Though the CHP under Kilicdaroglu won its biggest share of the vote in 30 years in last year's parliamentary election, it was still only just over half that of Erdogan's party, a large gap to bridge even with four years to go before the next poll.

Some 10,000 CHP supporters cheered and waved party flags as Kilicdaroglu arrived at the Ankara basketball stadium hosting the congress.

Well-wishers and cameramen crushed around him as he slowly made his way to his seat to chants of Kemal, prime minister, a remarkable level of excitement for a balding, middle-aged, grey-haired bespectacled man with the air of a kindly bureaucrat.

But that some CHP parliamentarians want to bring back Baykal was even more surprising.

After 15 years as CHP leader without an election win, Baykal only resigned as leader in 2010 after a videotape emerged of him in a hotel bedroom with a woman who was a former secretary.

Most analysts saw the failure of Baykal's supporters to organise a boycott of the congress as a victory for Kilicdaroglu in consolidating his grip on the party.

The owner of this party is not them ... but the people, CHP deputy leader Sezgin Tanr?kulu told Reuters. The delegates, despite all the calls to do otherwise, gave the party leader a vote of confidence with a big majority.

But winning the backing of the party is not the same as winning at the ballot box and the CHP has not won a general election for 35 years.


The oldest party in Turkey, the CHP was set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924 and now presents itself as a secular, social democrat movement in a country where right-wing, conservatives have traditionally won most polls.

But apart from a far-right and a pro-Kurdish party, the CHP is the only alternative for the many moderate, secular Turks who fear Erdogan's socially conservative AK Party harbours Islamist tendencies.

The CHP has viewed Erdogan's moves to curb the influence of the military and reform the judiciary and civil service with enormous scepticism. It has also resisted financial and economic reforms introduced by the AKP government and denounced Erdogan over a burgeoning investigation of an alleged coup plot that has resulted in the detention of hundreds.

The CHP's shift to the left under Kilicdaroglu has alienated many middle class Turks and the party has failed to reach out to the millions of devout conservatives, rich and poor, that form the backbone of support for the AKP since it swept to power in 2002.

For all the CHP's talk of democracy within the party, Turkey is still a country where parties can appear to be little more than a personality cult, and the strength of the man at the top often counts for more policies.

Erdogan's forceful populist oratory resonates with the poor, while his success at the helm of a country that was the world's second fastest growing major economy last year and 16th biggest overall has earned the gratitude of a burgeoning middle class.

The big-man conservative parties that dominated Turkish politics in the 1980s and 90s have all-but disappeared, eclipsed by the AKP which draws on a highly organised, motivated grass-roots network and business backers made wealthy under Erdogan.

But the CHP has survived and is unlikely to split.

The CHP is a rich party, for that reason it is more attractive to try to take it over than leave it, wrote Engin Ardic in the Sabah newspaper.

The CHP inherited Ataturk's 28 percent share in Is Bank, Turkey's biggest. But while the party does not receive dividends for the shares, it retains voting rights and therefore influence ensuring its survival as long as it can hold on to them.

With local elections and polls for the presidency in 2014, and parliamentary elections the year after, the CHP and Kilicdaroglu need a victory.

The first test for Kilicdaroglu will be the local elections, wrote columnist Kikret Bila in the Milliyet newspaper. If the CHP leader cannot win in these polls, the CHP will again be the scene of internal struggle.

(Additional reporting by Pinay Aydinli)