Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), renowned for its internal conflicts and ideological viewpoint of maintaining the status quo, held its two-day-long 34th ordinary convention in the Turkish capital of Ankara on July 17 and 18, under the banner of “Democracy and Change.”
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was re-elected again as party chairman -- by the way there were no other candidates contesting him -- on the first day of the convention, describes his party as the “New CHP.” The description of the CHP as new is an attempt to deliver a message to the public that the oldest political party of Turkey is in the process of change to adjust itself to the democratic transformation taking place in the country. But this change does not mean that the CHP will make any concessions from its secular, social democrat character as outlined by Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk, stresses Kılıçdaroğlu.
Has the CHP really changed, or are its messages of change cosmetic rather than real? Can the CHP become an alternative to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which is now in its third term in power since the November 2002 elections And another critical question that should be posed is: What does change mean to the CHP?
The CHP associated itself with the military and its tutelage system after the 1980 military coup, and thus marginalized itself under its long-time leader Deniz Baykal, who was forced to leave office in May 2010 following a sex video scandal allegedly with his former aide, who is also a former deputy. Bureaucrat-turned-deputy Kılıçdaroğlu became the party leader, and since then he has focused on putting things right within a party that is engulfed in an internal power struggle. To a certain extent Kılıçdaroğlu has succeeded in ending the power struggle, grabbing control of the party and its provincial administration. There is no guarantee, however, that internal struggle will not erupt again within the CHP since it has not been able to reach a consensus that it has to adjust itself to the democratic transformation taking place in the country. In addition, the CHP grassroots are resisting changing the party’s Kemalist ideology, which is based on maintaining the status quo.
It is worth mentioning here an excerpt from a paper written by Hakan Yeşilova from the İstanbul-based Fatih University to understand how Kemalism contradicts today’s world: “Kemalism has been perceived by its ideological followers as the only exit from the Turkish nation’s centuries-long shackles of so-called ‘backwardness.’” However, the restlessness of the wider masses that was undermined by the Kemalist elite for decades, is not bearable anymore after numerous military interventions and economic crises. This unrest was also strongly related to positivistic motivations that inherently shaped Kemalism, which aimed to wipe out religion from public life and tried to indoctrinate an unyielding secularism to every citizen through a systematic nationwide propaganda. This indoctrination worked very successfully in many ways and raised generations of like-minded Turkish people, nevertheless, the majority of the Turkish nation, for whom this indoctrination meant alienation from their historical and cultural roots, did not want to comply” (Hakan Yeşilova, Fatih University, 2010, “Kemalism: Ideology, Tutelary Regime, and Incompatibilities”, TJP Turkish Journal of Politics Vol. 1 No. 2 Winter).
As a matter of fact Kılıçdaroğlu, who talks about the “New CHP,” gave messages in the speech he made on the first day of the convention that the party stick to Kemalist ideology. This stance of the CHP can be an answer to whether the CHP has really changed or not. No, it has not, in essence.
The world has changed, and so have Turkish citizens. They are more vocal in pressing for their demands of economic and political stability as well as for more democratic rights while seeking an end to the existing military tutelage system.
The AK Party has succeeded in creating a relatively stable economic and political atmosphere in the country. It curbed the military’s power in politics, even if it has not yet made fresh reforms to ensure the democratic oversight of the armed forces.
The CHP states that it will now concentrate on policies that will challenge the AK Party rule in the coming local elections of 2014 as well as the 2015 general elections as the dust, it claims, settles within the party. As this column was being written, the delegates began electing a 60-member party assembly, the top decision-making organ of the party, on the second day of the convention. Erdoğan Toprak, one of the deputies to Kılıçdaroğlu, told me prior to the convention that the party assembly, which will be composed of names of those who are experts in their areas though they are not familiar to the public, will prepare the party to gain strength in the 2014 local elections and to carry the party to power in the 2015 general elections.
CHP heavyweights like Toprak are very sincere in their belief that the party has begun delivering policies that will make it an alternative to the AK Party. However, in reality this is not the case.
The AK Party still maintains its public support with around 50 percent, according to the latest opinion poll conducted. This is despite the fact that the party is in reform fatigue, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a powerful political figure, in a major U-turn, has long been displaying autocratic tendencies as the country has begun earning a bad reputation in the area of freedom of expression. His assertive stance on the controversial issue of banning abortion has been another case that has caused uproar among women’s associations.
Yet the CHP, as a main opposition party, has not changed its policies to inject confidence in the public that it can assure the public of a stable country under its rule, and thus it can now challenge the AK party. In addition, the CHP’s militant secular state concept does not mesh with a society that is majority Muslim and one that does not object to the state being secular, but does not accept the same for individuals.
Turkey will continue to be ruled by the AK Party until opposition parties and in particular the CHP is able to prove to the public that they are in favor of installing a real democracy. Turkey will continue living with the fact that the country’s biggest democratic deficit is the absence of effective opposition parties.