What to Expect from Turkey’s New Secular Leadership?

BY DR. H. AKIN UNVER** | 08.06.2011


  chp_logoTurkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been undergoing an important and profound transformation since May 2010, which began with the resignation of Deniz Baykal, the party’s chairman for more than 15 years, as a result of sex scandal allegations. Following Baykal’s resignation, Kemal Kilicdaroglu was elected as the new chairman of the CHP. A former deputy chairman, he rose to fame after a series of public debates in 2008 in which he successfully challenged two senior members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on corruption allegations. In fact, Kilicdaroglu was such a popular figure within the party, that during the CHP rally on May 22, 2010, he was elected to chairmanship by winning 1189 votes out of a possible 1197. About 6 months later on November 3, Kemal Kilicdaroglu made his first major overhaul of the party’s leadership by re-assembling the Central Executive Committee (CEC) with younger and lesser known members; a move, which was interpreted as the ‘revolution of the RPP progressives’. On December 18, following the intensification of the disputes between the CHP’s ‘old guard’ and the ‘progressives’, the party undertook an extraordinary general meeting, which took a further step towards the complete rectification of the party assembly along progressive lines, furthered with yet another change in the party’s CEC on December 25.

  • What caused the change?

While the CHP was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 as the political flagship of Kemalist ideology, it has undergone several periods of transformation through its history. Most notable of these changes was Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu’s attempts in reformulating CHP as a center-left party and Inonu’s successor Bulent Ecevit’s further expansion of this definition into the discourse of ‘Kemalist social-democratic party of the disaffected’ from 1973 until the military coup in 1980. After the closure of all political parties following the 1980 military junta, CHP leadership that had sympathized with Ecevit’s idea of a center-left social-democracy had established two separate parties that had later merged into the Social-Democratic People’s Party (SDPP) in 1985; perhaps not surprisingly, led by Ismet Inonu’s son, Erdal Inonu. However, CHP had re-emerged in 1992 under the leadership of Deniz Baykal and had merged with the SDPP; yet, Baykal’s reformulation of the CHP had less to do with Bulent Ecevit’s social-democracy and more to do with the CHP’s transformative-secularist wartime identity of the 1920s. Under Deniz Baykal, CHP’s main agenda changed into actively polarizing the electorate along ‘secular vs. Islamist’ lines and thereby monopolizing the ‘secularist’ votes. Especially after the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its skill in attracting the disaffected-underprivileged electorate led the CHP to be widely perceived as an elitist party; especially through the first half of the AKP’s tenure, voting behavior became a class issue in Turkey.

It was this polarizing and elitist discourse of the CHP that had alienated the electorate in general, which caused Baykal and his old comrades-in-arms to grow increasingly unpopular vis-a-vis the AKP. Gradually the mocking term ‘CHP-style opposition’ became the dominant and predictable characteristic of Baykal-era opposition politics, which basically implied arguing the exact opposite of what the AKP proposed, regardless of what the policy offered. This in turn, rendered Baykal’s CHP to be a ‘non-functionally ideological’ party, aiming to highlight its ideology as a tool of electoral polarization, damaging its credibility as a policy-formulating party in the long run. As a result, the CHP failed to win any elections since its re-emergence in 1995, adding to the alienation and frustration of the party supporters. Since former chairman Deniz Baykal and his comrades-in-arms took over the leadership in 1992, CHP consistently lost general and local elections and remained in the opposition (in the 1999 elections it couldn’t even get into the parliament). While the CHP could barely pass the 10% threshold through the 1990s crowded political scene, single-party government of the AKP forced the old leadership to re-construct their agenda around the discourse of a resistance against political Islam, thereby adopting the policy of active polarization of the electorate along ‘secular versus Islamist’ lines and increasing its votes considerably as a result. In 2002 and 2007 general elections, CHP had received 19.39% and 20.88% of the votes respectively, while in the local elections of 2004 and 2009, it got 18.38% and 23.11% respectively; latter being the highest percentage of vote Baykal leadership ever received. Nonetheless, such increase in votes was hardly due to CHP’s increasing electoral campaign performance, but rather a result of a much less crowded political scene with three main parties. Although CHP’s votes had increased, it did not cover the fact that it had been consistently losing elections. The old CHP leadership was becoming increasingly unpopular among the electorate because of this performance, and when it was in the opposition, it seemed unable to pose a serious check and balance against the ruling AKP. Furthermore, the ‘old guard’ was perceived to be stifling the party of young blood, thus turning away younger secularists who turned either to apathy or even voted for AKP. Therefore, both the voters and the party membership demanded a structural change and fresh blood to take over the party leadership.

  • What do the ‘new secularists’ offer?

Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s election can be regarded as the yearning of the CHP supporters for the 1970s’ Ecevit social-democracy, during which the party had sealed its only two election victories since 1950. To that end, Kilicdaroglu’s first move was to eliminate the ‘old guard’ from the Central Executive Committee and Party Assembly, as well as to change the party program and bylaws – albeit with great controversy and difficulty. Second, Kilicdaroglu adopted a new makeover, making some recent public appearances with the distinguishable hat and blue shirt, characteristically worn by Ecevit in the 1970s, as a clear signal of the future direction the party is headed towards.

Ideologically, the most striking feature of the new party assembly is the absence of ‘old Kemalists’ – those that define Kemalism as it was formulated during the early republican wartime period, which emphasized rigidly secularist-nationalist modernization over democratization and representation. More specifically, this implied the construction of the ‘citizen’ along an early-20th century Franco-German model in which social and political influence of religion was minimized and an overarching ethno-linguistic identity would constitutionally and legally override other ethno-linguistic and religious identities.


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*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 2 | No. 2

** Dr. Unver is the Ertegun Lecturer of Modern Tur-kish Studies at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN
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