Can Turkey’s Main Secularist Party Make a Comeback?

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Nicholas Birch


nationwide, the CHP only managed to get 2 percent more votes than in general elections in 2007. But in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, it increased votes by 10 percent, losing by a neck to a popular mayor from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “Win Istanbul and you are half way to winning Turkey”, says Adil Gur, a leading pollster. “A CHP victory would have been a huge coup.”


What was the secret of the CHP’s Istanbul success? Analysts and CHP voters give a two word answer: Gursel Tekin.


Sitting in his central Istanbul office, the 44-year-old politician who became CHP’s local chairman eighteen months ago remains modest: “We did what political parties are supposed to do: we went out and listened to people.” Now AK Party strongholds, Istanbul’s suburbs used to be CHP bastions, he adds. “Why did they stop giving us votes? Because we didn’t respond to their demands. It is up to us now to persuade them [to come] back.”


What strengthened Tekin’s policy of door-to-door canvassing immeasurably was the perception that he is more relaxed about Islam than many of his CHP colleagues. Tekin denies being out of synch with the party and insists that secularism is the one principle CHP will never relinquish.


Yet, while the CHP played a leading role in blocking government efforts to end a ban on headscarves in universities in 2008 year, he supports an end to the ban. And while some CHP supporters see the headscarf, worn by roughly two-thirds of Turkish women, as a symbol of a medieval mentality threatening Turkey, Tekin insists “the vast majority of Turks have no problem with secularism.”


“If a woman with a headscarf comes and says I want to join the party, what do you say? ’Come in.’ It’s as simple as that,” he says. “A party that fears the people of its country has no future.”


Tekin’s insistence that the politicization of the headscarf issue was the work of Islamic-rooted parties like AKP alone is questionable. But he is right to see CHP’s reputation as an anti-religious party as AKP’s “strongest card.”


“Help! Religion is slipping away, they say. Cut it out, brother, religion isn’t slipping anywhere,” Tekin says. “We made sure they couldn’t say this at these elections and they got into a terrible mess.”


The success of Istanbul’s new CHP head has led some to describe him as a secular Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the incumbent prime minister whose rise to power began when he became Istanbul mayor in 1994.


Both are from humble backgrounds. Erdogan doubled his party’s votes by changing it from a traditional Islamist party to one acceptable to center-right voters. Tekin knows the CHP must extend beyond its educated urban power base if it is to have any hope of gaining more than 20 percent of the vote.


“Tekin is a chance for the CHP,” says political commentator, Mahmut Ovur. “CHP must change, because Turkey cannot change unless CHP changes. This is the party which set up the republic, the party of the state: even if it is not in power, it behaves as if it is.”


“The CHP doesn’t do much positive, but it has showed an immense ability to block Turkey’s development,” added Soli Ozel, a political advisor to TUSIAD, the country’s most powerful business lobby.


Yet changing a party which sees itself as the standard-bearer of the republican ideology looks set to be more difficult than modernizing Islamism.


A politician who has led his party to five successive electoral defeats, CHP leader Deniz Baykal appears to have adopted some of Tekin’s policies. After years of anti-European rhetoric, he opened a CHP office in Brussels late last year. He has dropped the CHP’s almost exclusive emphasis on the supposed threat posed by Islam. Last November, he even began pinning CHP badges on women dressed in the black robes characteristic of Turkey’s most conservative Muslims.


But he has been deaf to calls for Tekin and other party modernizers to be given seats on the CHP’s top board, currently the preserve of aging ex-diplomats.


For political scientist Hakan Yilmaz, Baykal’s determination to cling to the old management team is a sign that the party leadership “has decided that 20 percent plus or minus two points is enough. A lot of power and no responsibility: the best of both worlds.”


In a sense, Baykal’s unwillingness to embrace change is comprehensible. As angry reactions in the party to his badge-pinning showed, the key issue for most CHP voters is a modern lifestyle, not more democracy. In a rapidly changing Turkey, however, it is far from clear whether the CHP can continue to garner even that level of support with old policies.


Tired of CHP’s emphasis on an interpretation of secularism that ignores the demands of minority religious groups, members of Turkey’s 10 million-strong Alevi community, who mix an ultra-heterodox interpretation of Shi’a Islam with pre-Islamic beliefs, show signs of drifting away from a party they have supported since the start of the republic.


While he has doubts as to whether Gursel Tekin has the strategic vision needed to give the CHP a make-over, columnist Mahmut Ovur thinks the public’s intense desire for change in today’s Turkey is such that he doesn’t necessarily need it. “The important thing is going out to the people,” Ovur said. “If you can bring your party with you, your political vision doesn’t need to be very profound.”


Polling data from local Istanbul elections backs him up. While staunchly CHP middle-class districts continued to vote overwhelmingly for the secularists, CHP made impressive inroads in working-class suburbs.


“The AK Party has extended as far as it can go,” says Hakan Yilmaz. “But the evidence is that there is a lot of potential for CHP mobilization among new immigrants from the country.”


Yilmaz doesn’t think the CHP can ever win conservative central Anatolia. It doesn’t need to. “If it can win metropolitan western Turkey, if it can push AK Party back into the interior,” he says, “then it will provincialize it. And a provincial AK Party is a spent force.”


Back in his office, Gursel Tekin freely admits that a lot of the votes that the CHP received came from people protesting against the government.


The question now, he says, is how to ensure they vote for the party next time round. “The time has come to fill in the gaps. What projects do we have? What vision? What hopes? If we can offer hope, a lot of things in Turkey will change.”


It remains to be seen whether his superiors will give him the chance.



Editor’s Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East. 

Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, or

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