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May 20, 2010, Thursday

The nature of the beast and of the CHP

It was true even of Britain’s great wartime leader Winston Churchill. It is the nature of the beast. No politician resigns while they are on top; they are forced out of office when they are no longer in control.
“All political careers end in failure,” said the very philosophical British politician Enoch Powell, who went on to add that this included his own. This adage is worth considering as we watch the leader of Turkey’s opposition party, Deniz Baykal, thrashing about in his death throes, wondering whether to hang on to the office he disgraced. He will not be the first politician who outstayed his welcome, and it is a slightly embarrassing spectacle watching him trying to salvage the nation’s respect. A politician with his trousers still round his ankles will always find it difficult walking gracefully out the door. As Powell might have said, “Some political careers end in greater failure than others.”

Let’s get the story straight. I do not share the Turkish prime minister’s high moral stand that Mr. Baykal’s adulterous affair of itself disqualifies him for high office. Indeed, Mr. Erdogan has made himself a hostage to fortune by declaring he would not tolerate such behavior among his own team. On the other hand, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) may well consider that Turkey is no Italy or France, where the electorate turn a blind eye or even applaud the extramarital affairs of their leaders. Mr. Baykal’s truly unacceptable act was to make his mistress a parliamentarian. That, on the surface or at least until Mr. Baykal chooses to explain himself, is a show of contempt for the democratic selection process, let alone the cause of women’s dignity and equality, which his party is meant to champion.

Mr. Baykal continues to humiliate himself by not appearing to realize his tenure at the party he led for so long has come to its logical conclusion. He resigned but assumed that he’d quickly be back. In part this is because a hierarchy within the CHP so used to being beholden to his patronage felt unable to let him go. However, the party grandees have now got used to the idea that their former leader is damaged goods that it is becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be a stage-managed call for him to return. It is the nature of the beast as well that once support in a hierarchical system erodes, it erodes very quickly. The CHP’s natural allies in the press have long since migrated to supporting Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the deputy who led a moderately spirited campaign as the CHP’s İstanbul mayoral candidate. The opinion polls they publish suggest that Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu is the only credible alternative and that he enjoys a head start in the uphill task of turning his party into a credible opposition to the current government. The growing assumption is that the delegates to the forthcoming CHP congress to elect a new leader will not follow their former leader in throwing themselves off a cliff. This sense of self-preservation may yet confound those who assumed Mr. Baykal’s departure would splinter his party into many pieces.

The reality is that the CHP has already splintered and Mr. Baykal managed to hang on to the reins for so long by forcing those factions who opposed him into the wilderness. He has been a unifying force only by stripping the CHP to a core faction that is far too small to ever win an election. The difficulty which faces his successor is how to expand that base. Political parties are meant to use their time in opposition as an opportunity to redefine their message and to reconnect to the country at large. It has long been the conventional wisdom that one of the great weaknesses of Turkish politics has been the failure of the Baykal-led CHP to do exactly that. The failure of the CHP to mount a respectable challenge during the general elections has legitimated the extra-parliamentary challenges to the government both from the courts and from the military. Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu may feel he has already moved a mountain in getting out front in the contest for the CHP leadership. If he is elected, he will have yet another mountain to move.

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