BACKGROUND: The results of the March 30 municipal elections showed that Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which received 26 percent of the votes, has geographically become confined to the western littoral of Turkey. The party draws most of its support from the greater Istanbul region. In sociological terms, the CHP has by and large become the party of the middle- and upper classes in metropolitan Istanbul and its surroundings.
The votes of the party – 26 percent – mirror the percentage of those in Turkey that define themselves as “moderns.” According to a recent survey by the Turkish polling company Konda, 28 percent of the population of Turkey describes itself as “modern.” The overwhelming majority of those cast their votes for the CHP.
It is only fitting that the urban bourgeoisie of Turkey identifies itself with a party that founded the Turkish republic, and which lay behind the conscious policies of the early republic to create a bourgeoisie.
Throughout its ninety years of existence, the CHP has assumed several different ideological identities. The party was authoritarian and promoted state capitalism from 1923 to the end of the 1950s; it turned social democratic in the 1960s and the 1970s; since the 1990s it has espoused identity politics, defending secularism and Turkish nationalism in response to the rise of political Islam and the Kurds’ aspirations.
Since Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu became party leader in 2010, the CHP has moderated its rhetoric; this is no doubt a reflection of the fact that the urban middle and upper classes that are its base no longer embrace a radical Kemalist standpoint as much as they did during the 1990s, when the rise of political Islam shocked them. They do not want to be isolated from the world; what they do want is protection for their “westernized”, bourgeois lifestyle. However, restricting its political mission to protecting the bourgeois lifestyle is not going to bring the CHP to power. This is indeed recognized by many.
Kemal Derviş, who served as Turkey’s minister of state for economic affairs between 2001 and 2002, wrote in the Financial Times after the March 30 elections that the CHP needs to rediscover its ability to speak for a majority, as it did during the 1970s. Derviş’ name is associated with the liberal economic policies that were implemented from the end of the 1990s, and which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has continued to adhere to. However, the experience of the 1970s that Derviş advises the CHP to rediscover would entail a rediscovery of class politics that would represent a challenge to the neo-liberal economic regime currently in place. It was only when it was the party of the working classes that the CHP was able to speak for the majority.
IMPLICATIONS: Class as a notion has disappeared out of sight in Turkey since the 1970s. But this does not mean that class interests have ceased to play out. For the last two decades, Turkish politics have been consumed with identity politics; the confrontation between Islamic conservatism and secularism has created the impression that what defines politics in Turkey are cultural values and identities, and that the future belongs to religious conservatism since it is the creed of the majority. This is a distorting view.
The broad masses have identified themselves with the rightist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan because he has appeared to be one of them, a “people’s man”; but people’s men in Turkey do not necessarily have to be religious conservatives. The leftist Bülent Ecevit was also taken to heart by the masses.
In the 1970s, Turkey was no different from, say, Greece. Turkish politics was defined by the left-right split. The then social democratic CHP succeeded in mobilizing the working class and poor peasants with a traditional leftist program. Ecevit, the charismatic, leftist populist leader of the party, promised an “end to exploitation.” The party had started its turn to the left already at the end of the 1950s when it called for the legalization of the right to strike. The turn to the left finally paid off in the elections in 1977, when the CHP won with 42 percent of the votes.
Nowadays, CHP politicians shy from appealing to the working class or to the poor in general. Binnaz Toprak, a CHP parliamentarian, recently observed that social democrats in Europe as well are unable to challenge the right. “It’s not easy for social democrats to redefine themselves. The Marxist utopia is dead. Identities have replaced class,” she claimed.
Yet the AKP’s successes are ultimately grounded in sociological class realities: the party has been winning because it has catered to class interests, appealing to the urban working class, to the rural poor and to the rising middle class in Anatolia at the same time. It has done so by expanding health care and other social policies and by simultaneously pursuing business-friendly economic policies. What has enabled the AKP to maintain this class coalition is the inflow of foreign capital to Turkey. That model for political success may not be indefinitely sustainable.
The CHP faces a similar challenge of squaring the circle of the interests of the classes that support it, or that would be inclined to lend it support. Sezgin Tanrıkulu, one of the deputy chairmen of the CHP, expressed this dilemma recently to the Turkey Analyst. He said that he would like the party to be more leftist and speak for the working and poor classes. However, the absence of a secular center right party has had as consequence that the CHP has become the party of the urban bourgeoisie, which places limits on how social democratic the party can become. As Tanrıkulu put it, if a secular center right were to materialize, then the CHP would not have to keep its social democratic impulses in check.
Yet a Turkish social democracy that caters both to the middle class, to the working class and to the rural poor can still be envisioned. That is in fact what European social democrats historically have done, and which explains why they were successful for so long. The Swedish social democrats, arguably the most successful representatives of this political tradition, once built their power by aligning the interests of the industrial capital and those of the working class. They advanced the interests of capitalism while at the same time building a welfare state.
Turkey’s economy has been growing during AKP’s time in power, but the conservatism of the ruling party is increasingly at odds with what capitalist development requires. In order to continue to prosper, Turkey must become industrially more advanced; only a dismal two percent of Turkey’s exports consist of high technology products. Technological development requires better education and it depends on the existence of a cultural environment where ideas are allowed to grow and where innovation is fostered; the social and religious conservatism of the AKP, which has become more pronounced lately, does not promote these things.
CONCLUSIONS: In Turkey, the protection of bourgeois lifestyle has come to be understood in superficial terms of identity politics, being more or less reduced to defending the right to drink alcohol. However, properly understood, bourgeois values stand for something infinitely more profound, and these align with the welfare of society. Contrary to what the CHP has come to think, the party does not need to choose between identity politics and class politics. It can emulate the example of the AKP that has so far practiced both in perfect tandem.
The CHP could very well speak both for bourgeois interests – freedom, individual liberties and a culture that values innovation – and at the same time cater to the interests of the working and poor classes. Indeed, the case can be made that such a combination would be more sustainable, lacking the contradictions that are inherent to the AKP’s model, which does not promote the kind of bourgeois values that are necessary for keeping the economy – and welfare – growing. There is no reason to assume that social democracy cannot ever rise again in Turkey. But the social democrats will have to start by rediscovering the working class.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Joint Center.