“Kılıçdaroğlu did not denounce the generals, and he can’t do it because he is frightened of losing part of his base. Unless he does that, there is no hope for the CHP to be other than a minority party and probably a shrinking one,” said Chris Stephenson, who analyzed the Turkish left and its relations to Kemalism for Monday Talk.
Stephenson pointed out that the CHP does not represent the interests of the poor and the workers and that the essential character of the CHP is as follows: military and bureaucratic.
“Without breaking from that, the CHP can’t become a social democratic party, and the left has to be built from somewhere else,” he said.
The CHP held two party congresses last week, one on Sunday and another one on Monday, as a result of an ongoing battle between the current party administration under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu and his opponents. At the end, there was a clear reaffirmation of the general support of the party’s delegates for Kılıçdaroğlu, his opponents now also concede.
‘The CHP does not appeal to the mass of people, many of whom are religious. The CHP neither appeals to their economic interests -- because the CHP is almost as neo-liberal as the government -- and at the same time the CHP finds those people’s lifestyle unacceptable. … That cuts the CHP off from a large number of people, including a large number of working class people, which is a traditional base for a social democratic party’
While the CHP was trying to make improvements to the party charter and to democratize it over the past weekend, the Yüzleşme Derneği (Confrontation Society, which advocates the rewriting of republican history and the return of honor to people unjustly convicted of crimes committed by state-related organs) was having a symposium called “We are confronting the official ideology.” One of the speakers at the symposium, Stephenson talked about the Turkish left and its relation to Kemalism.
Answering our questions, he elaborated on the issue.
The title of your speech at “Yüzleşme Derneği” was “After Kemalism, where next for the left.” Would you tell us about where next for the left in Turkey?
There is an interesting parallel with what happened to the left after 1989 and 1991, the collapse of the Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, when a lot of the left lost its way and actually moved to the right, not only abandoning their belief in Stalinism but also losing their belief in socialism. There is now a divide in the Turkish left between those who are clinging to Kemalism and moving in a nationalist direction and those who are moving toward a neo-liberal position. Both sides are actually moving to the right. They both have become less left-wing. The two sides hate one another deeply. A third pole moving toward the left, opposing both nationalism and neo-liberalism, is small, but growing
And there is the CHP, Republican People’s Party. For some people in Turkey it is a left-wing party. How do you evaluate this situation?
It’s an interesting party with an interesting history. It was the party of Mustafa Kemal’s one party dictatorship and was clearly not left wing. It paralleled the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was not left wing; both were parties of the ruling elite. Then the CHP was reinvented by Bülent Ecevit, starting in 1965, and crucially with Ecevit’s opposition to the March 12, 1971 military coup. This opposition was the basis for the removal of İsmet İnönü as the leader of the party. And then Ecevit got 46 percent of the popular vote. At that point the CHP was more like the British Labour Party; the CHP was transformed into a social democratic party. When I came to Turkey, although the CHP was banned in 1991, there was the SHP [Social Democratic People’s Party]. Erdal İnönü was the leader of the SHP. Lots of left-wing people were supporting the SHP. That ended quite quickly with the SHP going into the coalition government and the SHP abandoning the Kurds when Leyla Zana and the other Kurdish SHP MPs were sent to jail [Zana was elected to Parliament as a deputy from the SHP, had her parliamentary immunity removed on March 3, 1994, and was arrested for a speech she had made the next day with four colleagues]. After Murat Karayalçın became the SHP leader, he signed the IMF austerity plan on April 5, 1994. It was the beginning of the end for the CHP as a social democratic party.
What is your evaluation of the Baykal years in the CHP?
Under Baykal, the CHP became extremely nationalist and conservative, conservative in the true sense of conservatism, preserving the status quo, in particular the influence of the army in Turkish politics. The CHP now appears to be a minority party.
Why is the CHP becoming a minority party, would you elaborate?
Because it does not appeal to the mass of people, many of whom are religious. The CHP neither appeals to their economic interests -- because the CHP is almost as neo-liberal as the government -- and at the same time the CHP finds those people’s life style unacceptable. They don’t approve of women going to universities with headscarves, and when you look at statistics about how many women in Turkey wear headscarves, that’s the majority. That cuts the CHP off from a large number of people, including a large number of working class people, which is a traditional base for a social democratic party.
‘CHP doesn’t love Alevis but needs them’
How do you evaluate Baykal’s removal from the leadership of the CHP?
It was inevitable because it was a response essentially to the Alevi problem. Onur Öymen’s remark, “Didn’t mothers also cry at the time of the Dersim Rebellion?” [in response to the phrase “Let no more mothers cry,” used by the government to justify its “Kurdish opening” toward a political solution of the Kurdish problem] was like cutting your own feet off. Öymen’s remarks were the last straw for many Alevis. Baykal was removed to save the party from humiliation in the elections. There have been many people still loyal to the CHP despite what the CHP has done. The CHP has historically done nothing for the Alevis. The love affair between the Alevis and the CHP is a one-way affair. It seems that the CHP doesn’t love the Alevis but does need their votes.
This one-way love affair has been puzzling even for sociologists.
When you have a community that has been through a terrifying slaughter, if some people do something terrible to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to express hate for them. They say,“Dersim was bad, but the Islamists could be worse.” The SHP’s Erdal İnönü was deputy prime minister at the time of the Sivas events, and he did not do anything to stop them. Still the Alevis looked to the CHP. Defeat is not good for anybody; it reinforces fears. There is that story about a book on the Armenian genocide that was published in France, and the Armenian community in İstanbul burnt the book with a big ceremony and wrote to the Ministry of the Interior that they are loyal citizens. This is an example from another community that has suffered terribly. Defeated, they were trying to show themselves in a good light to the authorities. This is perfectly understandable since what had happened to them was so terrible.
‘Interesting traffic between the far left and the CHP’
And then Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu emerged as the leader of the CHP. After the party congress last weekend, he seemed to emerge as a stronger leader in his party, and he formed a new Party Council mostly purged of the supporters of former Secretary-General Önder Sav. Is Kılıçdaroğlu likely to stay strong?
There is not much hope for the CHP. In Turkey, there is a need for a party of the left. Currently, there is a right-wing government, and there is a right-wing opposition. There is a need for a party of the left because Kılıçdaroğlu did not denounce the generals, and he can’t do it because he is frightened of losing part of his base. Unless he does that, there is no hope for the CHP to be other than a minority party, and probably a shrinking one. It’s a party without a social purpose. It does not represent the interests of the poor and the workers in Turkey. If you look at the CHP’s parliamentary activities, they are not doing anything for the poor and the workers. The essential character of the CHP is there: military and bureaucratic. Without breaking from that, the CHP can’t become a social democratic party, and the left has to be built from somewhere else.
Is there a chance that the EDP (Equality and Democracy Party) is going to do that?
Developments during its birth were intimately connected with the Alevi question. A lot of people who left the CHP went to the EDP, but then they returned to the CHP after Kılıçdaroğlu’s election as leader. There had been a split from the CHP by those who could not stand the Baykal team anymore. The EDP is a party that has got a lot of potential because of its approach. It made a clear break with Kemalism, unlike much of the left, while not moving to neo-liberalism. It has a pro-worker agenda. In an ideal world, the EDP would become Turkey’s left party, like Germany’s Die Linke. But many people who consider themselves on the left in Turkey are still loyal to the CHP, and the CHP is not going to disappear.
What is the link between the left and the CHP?
There is still an interesting traffic between the far left and the CHP. This reflects the incipient Kemalism of that part of the far left. It has paid a high price for its Kemalist reflexes. One example is the Feb. 28, 1997 coup, where much of the left failed to take sides against the coup, taking a “neither nor” position, at best. That meant abandoning the struggle against the influence of the army in Turkish politics to the Islamists. And the people of Turkey do not like the influence of the Turkish military in politics. They have always voted against military intervention, whenever they have had the chance. One of the reasons for the popularity of the AK Party [ruling Justice and Development Party] is that it has been seen to take on the army. And the left hasn’t done that. That actually delegitimizes the left. The AK Party has been very clever so far but now with the very serious wave of repression, it feels for many people like it is going back to the 1990s. At Bilgi University, we have one lecturer and five students in prison. It’s affecting us. When the government does that, it is like going back to the old style, like the DYP [The True Path Party] or ANAP [The Motherland Party]. We saw what happened to ANAP and the DYP in and after the 2002 elections. They both disappeared. The Turkish people punished those parties.
‘Broader left can be built in Turkey’
You said at the conference of the Yüzleşme Derneği that Stalinism was a bridge between Kemalism and the left. Would you elaborate on the idea?
Stalinism and Kemalism have lots of ideas in common: Statism, nationalism, reformism, secularism and totalitarianism. Most of the left no longer supports Stalinism and the regime of the former Soviet Union. As a result, there is an ideological gap, a vacuum. Most of the broad left do not know where they are going. The EDP is trying to build a new left. That’s why they are having lots of meetings debating the past. Recently, they have a joint initiative with the Green Party to have meetings to have debates on issues of Kemalism, the future of the left; how a broader left can be built in Turkey.
What kind of left is it? Can you give us some ideas about it?
They are trying to invent a left that is not Kemalist, not sexist, not racist, not homophobic and that is pro-environment. For example, there are meetings of the members of the EDP and the Green Party, at the base, in many cities in Turkey. Those meetings have been mind-opening for people. Without this sort of groundwork, there is no possibility of the emergence of a new left in Turkey. If you look at the last 10 years, many had hopes for solutions to long-lasting problems, especially the Kurdish issue. Now those hopes are evaporating. Actually, there was nothing to be hopeful about, but there were possibilities, splits in the system. It was possible to say things that it was not possible to say before. But you can’t expect a right-wing party to democratize Turkish society. Yes, the AK Party is against the army’s hold on power, and as far as they are against the army’s hold on power, they should be supported. That’s why the Sept. 12 constitutional referendum should have been supported; it was a step to democratize Turkish society, albeit a small one. But believing that they are actually going to do the job is mad because it is a party with a lot of nationalist supporters. They’ve got to talk to [Kurdistan Worker’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah] Öcalan. There is no way to solve the Kurdish problem without talking with him, whether you like him or not.
They did talk with him, didn’t they?
They did it secretly but you’ve got to do it openly, as the British government eventually did with the IRA [The Irish Republican Army]. That certainly did not solve all the problems but at least there are no longer bombs going off. First, the AK Party’s relationship with the army is an ambiguous one; they don’t have sufficient support in society to actually take on the army. The position of the AK Party with the army is full of compromises, one step forward two steps back and sometimes two steps forward one step back. And the Kurdish question is the key because it reinforces justification for the army’s enormous budget. The army does not really want a solution to the Kurdish question. Secondly, even when the government looked as if it would take courageous steps on the Kurdish issue, I read that only one-third of the AK Party MPs then supported the Kurdish opening.
Do you think the CHP would support talking with Öcalan for solving the Kurdish problem?
I would be extremely surprised, but extremely happy if they did that. It would be a risky move for the CHP but certainly something to be applauded. That would suddenly change the whole picture for the left in Turkey. That would mean the CHP is prepared to become a real social democratic party. The EDP would then have to react to an entirely new situation. But it is very unlikely to happen.
Born in England, he went to the University of Cambridge and later completed his post-graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He studied mathematics and artificial intelligence. After working as a computer professional in London, he came to live in Turkey in 1991 and returned to academic life, first at Marmara University, then briefly at Yeditepe University and finally at İstanbul Bilgi University where he has been teaching since 1999. He has been a socialist since the 1960s. His interest in politics and history led him to be a researcher in those areas, especially the history of the Turkish left and its relations to Kemalism. Under his pen name, Cem Uzun, he wrote the book “Kemalizm Sol Değil” (Kemalism is not left wing), published in 2004. He has written numerous articles on this, and other, topics. He is the editor of Marx-21, a book series on current politics.
In his words:
“I joined the Labour Party in 1963, at the age of 14, as an anti-nuclear weapons activist, because the Labour Party was promising to scrap Britain’s Polaris nuclear missile submarines. The Labour Party won the 1964 election, but did not keep its promise. I realized then that the Labour Party was not left enough for me. I became a Marxist and active socialist. I am a computer scientist, but I became interested in history as a result of my interest in politics. I had an interest in Greek politics because there were a lot of refugees in Britain from Greece in the early 1970s. I also became interested in Turkish politics. In London, you are in daily contact with large Turkish, Kurdish, Turkish and Greek Cypriot populations; I made many friends. As a result of those friendships, I decided to come to live in Turkey.”