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October 18, 2010, Monday

Three reasons why the CHP cannot change

Having changed its leader, will the Republican People’s Party (CHP) be able to adopt a new political language and program? This has been optimistically expected of the “new” CHP. It seems that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his new team are aware of the need to do something to reach out to new social sectors in order to make the party electable in the upcoming elections.But they face resistance within the party, as reflected in the controversy over whether the CHP will join in the Republican Day reception at Çankaya, where the wife of the president will be present, wearing her headscarf. While Kılıçdaroğlu has hinted that he might go to Çankaya on Oct. 29, other party officials had already declared that they would boycott the reception.

These confusing messages show that changing the CHP is not an easy task. The key debate in this is “secularism.” Will the CHP remain a single-issue party focusing on the claim that secularism is in danger or will it adopt a moderate notion of secularism and move on to develop a social democratic agenda?

It will not easy for the CHP, which has based its policies for years on the claim that “secularism is under threat,” to suddenly say that “secularism is not under threat.” Obviously it is hard to explain this radical shift to the grass roots and the party elites, and justify such a shift in ideological terms.

Even if the party leadership wishes to transform the party into one which has a moderate republican stance with a social democrat agenda there are structural obstacles before the CHP undertaking such an endeavor. First of all there is the resistance of the party elites and the old guards who rightly calculate that policy change will undermine their presence in the party. Although some of them supported Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, they now accurately conclude that if the party transforms itself into a social democratic entity it will not need the old guards, who do not have any significant social representation. They supported the leadership change but will not tolerate the change of identity and polices from the old radical Kemalist-secularist notion of republicanism.

The second important obstacle before the transformation of the party is the grass roots. For some people the CHP is a safe harbor in a rapidly changing environment -- the last bastion of secularism. It has been more than a political party; it is a safety net, a front. Under the pressure of such elements, the CHP turned into a reactionary party of those who feel insecure in the face of radical social, economic and political transformations. These people are now shocked by the Kılıçdaroğlu’s statements about the headscarf issue and secularism not being under threat.

The dilemma for the CHP is that it cannot change its discourse without risking losing at least some of its supporters. The CHP has been imprisoned by its own strategy of rallying people through fear, the fear that secularism and republican values are in danger. Now it is extremely difficult for the CHP to calm those people who have been alarmed by the CHP itself.

The third obstacle is ideological. Unless the CHP abandons Kemalism and denounces the Kemalist past, it cannot evolve into a social democrat party since Kemalism gives priority to the state and state authority over the people. Kemalism is the ideology of single-party rule in which the state apparatuses were extensively used to coerce the people. For any party competing in democratic race Kemalism is not an asset but a liability since it is incompatible with democracy and free choice. This is a hard fact that the new CHP leadership should understand if they really wish to “renew” the party.

In sum, the political elite, grass roots and Kemalism are three obstacles before the transformation of the CHP. To reach new social segments, the CHP must be ready to sacrifice at least some of its old grass roots. This is the dilemma. The fact that the next election is so close ties the hands of the new leadership. If they do not meet expectations and perform better than the former leader, Deniz Baykal, it will be hard to keep their posts at the top of the party. The referendum might have been a source of strength for changing the party if the “no” votes had gotten the majority. With the heavy defeat in the referendum, the CHP leadership cannot risk splitting the party in the name of change. But, unless they change the party and adopt a new political language and strategy, it is unlikely that they can appeal to new social segments in order to win majority in the next general elections.

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