A cursory look at political developments during the last 10 years makes it clear that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been saliently increasing its electoral support in each successive election.
In the last parliamentary elections, about 22 million voters in Turkey voted for the AK Party. Roughly half this number voted for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
If we analyze the motives voters had for supporting the AK Party, we might say that they voted for this party as a sign of approval of the services and stability it has provided. On the other hand, a certain sense of dissatisfaction and pessimism is detectable in the people who voted for the CHP. Certainly there are reasons for this, and I shall discuss them below. But I would like to include a small reminder before analyzing the CHP’s 34th party congress, the most significant event in the political scene in the past week.
Shortly before the general elections of 2010, the CHP changed its leader. This change did not -- and could not, for that matter -- come through normal means. For the uninitiated, let me note that the CHP perceives itself as the founding party of the Turkish republic. It also sees Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as the founder of the Republic, which is true. Until Democrat Party (DP) leader Adnan Menderes, who would later be executed by secularists in the wake of the 1960 coup, came to power (1950-1960), the CHP, as the Kemalist state’s only party, governed the country with an iron fist and employed the fascist republic model as its form of governance. The deep-running prejudices and lack of trust among the people of Turkey were sown in this period; in particular, stripping non-Muslim minorities of their wealth and their banishment from the country, the massacres of Alevis and Kurds and the pressures on the religious practices of Muslims can be described as social engineering efforts. The CHP had put a Western spin on these fascist practices, claiming that it was performing them in order to create a contemporary, secular and united country, and for this reason the West not only did not criticize these practices; it praised them.
Following this short introduction, I should also note that between 2002 and 2010 -- a period that may later be labeled the second foundation of Turkey -- the CHP worked as the parliamentary branch of juntas and tried to prevent Abdullah Gül from being elected president because his wife is headscarved. The CHP also acted as the mouthpiece of all antidemocratic initiatives, such as the April 27 memorandum and the Constitutional Court’s meddling in politics. The CHP has relied so heavily on and invested so much hope in the military handing it political power on a tray, instead of coming to power by formulating policies, that it has become rotten inside, alienating its voter base.
Plotters within the state
The attempts to overthrow the government that started before the AK Party came to power and continued uninterrupted until 2009 were not successful. These attempts were uncovered, and the perpetrators are standing trial in a series of critical cases, such as those against Ergenekon -- a clandestine organization nested within the state accused of attempting to overthrow or manipulate the democratically elected government -- and the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plan. Those who created and used the CHP finally, though belatedly, realized that the CHP would be able to come to power by collaborating with juntas. With this realization, an operation was launched against the CHP’s former leader Deniz Baykal. Baykal became the victim of a sex tape conspiracy that was rumored to have been staged with the help of some intra-party groups and media outlets. Thus Baykal was forced to resign, after Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who would later replace him, and his closest senior aides had deserted him in the wake of the scandal. At that time, Kılıçdaroğlu would parrot, “I won’t run for party leadership,” but in the end he became the CHP’s new head.
This event is still enigmatic, and Baykal does not seem inclined to have it investigated. But that is not what this article is about.
For the foregoing reasons, the CHP was stripped of the luxury of securing power through the bureaucracy, and was now feeling the need to deal with the nuts and bolts of politics. Despite the cloud obscuring the dynamics of this change, I find the CHP’s return to the political arena a positive development. Independently from whatever powers launched the operation to reorganize the CHP and for what purposes, I believe as long as Turkey’s political stability and demilitarization progresses, the ulterior motives of those who reformatted the CHP will not surface, and the CHP will change as it warms to politics, whether by design or default. But it is hard to predict how long this will take.
As a matter of fact, the bitter truth is that the CHP is very unlikely to close the gap unless it does away with Kemalism and makes a radical self-criticism. However, during the last party congress, Kılıçdaroğlu did not try to exclude Kemalists and neo-nationalists (ulusalcı) and nominated Ergenekon defendants for the Party Assembly (PM), which is proof that the change he refers to is only palliative. Indeed, he had allowed two major Ergenekon defendants, Mehmet Haberal and Mustafa Balbay, to run for Parliament and get elected as deputies, in a move that indicated that he was inimical to the process of settling accounts with the deep state and coup perpetrators, a process to which the overwhelming majority of the public attach great importance.
Of course, it could be argued that even if Kılıçdaroğlu wishes it, he may not be able to convince the party’s voters of the necessity of a radical change, because these voters have long been manipulated by unreal fears of “sharia is coming,” and have come to see themselves as a privileged group among an ignorant public. This argument is certainly true. Even if he wishes to, Kılıçdaroğlu cannot say, “Kemalism has already expired; it has caused great sorrows, we’ll no longer be a Kemalist party.” If he says that, what happened to Baykal will happen to him as well. A party that cannot dispense with Kemalism cannot be “new,” and if it cannot be new it cannot secure votes beyond its existing voter base. How can the public trust a party that has made Ergenekon defendants deputies, while the overwhelming majority of the public lend support to moves to confront coup perpetrators? Moreover, the party that apologized for the Dersim massacre, one of the darkest moments in the country’s history, was the AK Party, not the CHP, despite the latter having presided at the time of the massacre. And although he is an Alevi from Dersim, rather than lending support to the prime minister’s apology, Kılıçdaroğlu slammed it. This was a bad move in the eyes of potential new voters.
Occasionally, Kılıçdaroğlu makes important moves. For instance, he made striking statements about the resolution of the Kurdish issue, and held a meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss it. Given the fact that the CHP had depicted the AK Party’s Kurdish initiative as “treason” in 2009, even this small change should be appreciated. Yet there are still doubts as to how this change in discourse will be reflected in the party’s practices. This is the case independent of Kılıçdaroğlu. For this reason, the CHP’s neo-nationalist-dominated organizational structure exhibited great rage against Diyarbakır deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu, who was considered the golden child of the CHP’s Kurdish initiative.
However, knowing that the CHP cannot grow in this way, Kılıçdaroğlu is opening doors to such political change. At the same time, he fears angering the party’s voter base and being in conflict with them. Therefore, in this last party congress, he included representatives from every faction in the list. However, he cannot maintain this delicate balance for an extended period.
Confronting their legacy
In other words, sooner or later, the CHP will have to confront Kemalism. Luckily, this is the best option for the party. The worst possibility is that Kılıçdaroğlu withdraws to the former CHP policies in response to the reactions to this process, ensuring that it remains the country’s main opposition party for a long time to come. The only positive development may be that progressive groups within the party grow under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu, or any other leader, going on to purge the neo-nationalist elements of the party and create a new social democratic party out of the CHP, relegating the old CHP to history. Even the name, “CHP,” is an obstacle to the party’s growth.
It is hard to be a leader of the CHP and ensure that the CHP changes. Therefore, the best policy is to lend support to those, like Kılıçdaroğlu, who try to do positive work in the party.