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July 30, 2012, Monday

The new CHP vigor for Turkish politics

Last week, I sat down to talk to a man who has finally consolidated his power as the leader of the main opposition party after two years of intra-party fighting which has consumed much of the party's energy and resources, leaving its main rival, the ruling party, much room to cater to voters in Turkish politics.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP), which held its regular party congress two weeks ago, shared his views on how he wants to play politics with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has won three consecutive elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan are poles apart on many issues, be it foreign or domestic, but they also mimic each other on social and economic issues when they believe it is possible to peel chunks of voters' blocs from each other. Unlike his predecessor, the new CHP leader has distanced the party from ideological divisions and eased the party's stance on nationalistic discourse while being busy producing policy papers on many issues that matter to the man on the street. He tried to offer a number of panaceas to the nation's illnesses in various fields on the eve of the national elections last year but the window of opportunity was very narrow as he rushed to explain the nuts and bolts of his ideas in a very short time. Nevertheless the CHP's proposals had shaken up the ruling AK Party to some degree.

Now that he is the undisputed leader of the main opposition party, Kılıçdaroğlu says he will go after the AK Party very aggressively in a number of areas while working to improve the battered image of the CHP both at home and abroad. “I will be sending more delegations to Europe to explain our party's policies on the socialist democratic platform,” he said, stressing that the perceived image of the CHP as anti-EU is utterly wrong. “In effect, the AK Party has turned into an anti-EU party and has halted the reforms process,” he said, adding that the new CHP will become a more active player in Socialist International, where he is lobbying to become a vice president.

The new CHP leader is not naive enough to think that his job will be easy as he openly admits that the CHP has a real “credibility problem” with voters and faces an uphill battle to win them over. “We have difficulty in convincing women, small and medium-sized business owners, conservatives and liberals alike. But we will work harder to explain ourselves to these people,” he vowed.

That will not be easy, however, as the AK Party is performing well in many areas, especially in the economy. I believe that is why Kılıçdaroğlu chooses to attack the government on the foreign policy front, specifically singling out Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in recent months. He blames the unprecedented challenges Turkey has faced in its immediate neighborhood, from Syria to Iraq, from Iran to Israel, on the Erdoğan government and keeps bashing Davutoğlu on almost all occasions, hoping that the Turkish public will start to see the AK Party government as damaging to the country's national interests. While Kılıçdaroğlu acknowledges that Ankara may need to take a more proactive role in its external relations, as Davutoğlu had suggested, the CHP leader warns that a departure from traditional “non-interference” and a “wait and see” policy perspectives may land Turkey in hot waters. “The case in point is relations with Israel,” he said. “We should have mended fences with the Jewish state a long time ago,” he underlined.

How he will recruit new names in this new period will reveal more about the direction that the new CHP is headed for. For the time being, it looks like he wants to mix part of the old breed with fresh blood, creating a balance between older and more experienced figures in the party and members from the younger generation. He promises to end the specter of “second man,” a kingmaker behind the leader, which has loomed large over the CHP for decades. But that may prove to be difficult to achieve as old habits die hard. If it is any indication, the position of Haluk Koç, a veteran politician from the northeastern province of Samsun, will be indicative of the party's direction in that respect. I observed Koç, a successful doctor-turned-politician, during the campaign trail last year and found him to be a well-respected and much-loved personality in the province. He is well-versed in foreign languages and commands respect among his colleagues in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Another observation I noted during the campaign trail was that the CHP was divided in many provinces, with old dogs fighting with CHP newcomers, bleeding each other out. Kılıçdaroğlu said he is well aware of the problems in the local chapters and is keen to address the divisive issues in the provinces. He made it clear that the new CHP will overcome resistance from the status quo defenders within the party. “Adapting to change is never easy and it invites resistance and reaction,” he said, “but if we do not implement the changes or delay them, we will surrender ourselves to the status quo.” Kılıçdaroğlu was able to change the minds of most of the delegates in local chapters, consolidating his base in the provinces. This will help him overcome differences in local politics. What is more, the CHP leader has promised to open the CHP up to more women and youth representation to attract more votes.

Kılıçdaroğlu told me that the CHP would go after the government on the unemployment issue, describing it as Turkey's most fundamental problem. He said one in every four youths is unemployed in Turkey. According to official data from the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) earlier this month, the unemployment rate in Turkey's vast labor force saw a major decline of nearly 1 percentage point, dropping to 9 percent in April. According to TurkStat, youth unemployment was also down to 16.7 percent in the first fourth months of the year, from 17.9 percent in the same month of last year. Though Kılıçdaroğlu's figures may differ from the official data, he still has a perfectly valid point in going after the government on this very important issue.

Kılıçdaroğlu is also banking on the mistakes of the AK Party and the recent overtures which the governing party has made to specific segments in conservative camps, mostly focused on symbolism. He hopes that issues like abortion and mosque building, which are non-issues for the larger Turkish society, will turn some voters off from the AK Party, eventually alienating the party from the larger masses. He also listed the authoritarian tendencies which Erdoğan's government has adopted since the elections on June 12, 2011, as a huge turn-off for voters. For example, during the interview, Kılıçdaroğlu was highly critical of the government for neutering Parliament's oversight role over the government via the majority of seats which the AK Party controls. “This is the biggest weakness in our democracy,” he said, stressing that the legislative branch exists only on paper written in the Constitution. “It looks like position of Parliament is under the executive power where the oversight power of the legislative is under constant pressure from the government,” he said, adding that the deputies do not act according to their free will when casting votes.

No doubt there is a long road ahead for the new CHP to present itself as a credible alternative to the AK Party. With many bumps predicted along the road during the process of reformation within the party, I think the CHP, the oldest party in Turkey, will eventually be able to transform itself to appeal to a wider audience in Turkey. If that fails, the CHP will wither away into extinction and becoming a relic, just like many other examples we have seen in the recent history of the republic.

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