BACKGROUND: On April 26, Deniz Baykal was re-elected chairman of the Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s oldest political party, with an overwhelming majority of the vote in the party’s congress. This was hardly unexpected – the 70-year old Baykal has become a fixture on the political scene, notorious for his ability to cling to power in the party in spite of recurrent electoral defeats as well as for his capability and willingness to purge the party of any critical voices.
Indeed, Baykal’s notoriety is legion. He first emerged as a challenger to Bülent Ecevit in the late 1970s, when Ecevit led the CHP. Following the 1980 military coup, Baykal joined the CHP’s successor party, the SHP, which at the time was led by Erdal Inönü, a physics professor and son of the CHP’s second chairman, Atatürk’s brother-in-arms Ismet Inönü. Under the younger Inönü, the SHP formed the major social democratic opposition to Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP), while also forming a government in coalition with Süleyman Demirel’s and later Tansu Çiller’s True Path Party in 1991-95. Between 1987 and 1992, Baykal used his position as party general secretary to try a full three times to unseat Inönü. When the ban on pre-1980 political parties was lifted in 1992, Baykal immediately re-established the old CHP. As Ecevit had long before created a separate party, the Democratic Left Party, the Turkish left was now divided into three parties, contributing significantly to its electoral powerlessness.
Realizing this following the local elections of 1994, the SHP and CHP merged under the compromise leadership of Hikmet Çetin, a figure respected for his consensus-seeking skills, in February 1995. But already in September of the same year, Baykal orchestrated a recapture of power in the party, unseating Çetin at the new party’s congress. No sooner had Baykal taken over the party that he brought down the coalition government it was part of, precipitating the early elections of December 1995 that brought the Islamist Welfare party to power. As for Baykal’s party, which had received 20 percent of the vote in 1991, it only barely passed the threshold for representation, coming in at 10,7 percent. Four years later in the 1999 elections, the disaster was accomplished, with the CHP falling out of the parliament for the first time with less than 9 percent of the vote – whereas Ecevit’s party came in first with 22 percent. Only then did Baykal tactically resign, but only to recapture control of the party a year later, in September 2000. Given Ecevit’s failing health and retirement in 2002, and the collapse of the center-right following the 2001 financial crisis, Baykal’s CHP were able to emerge as the chief representatives of the left, and the main challenger of the AKP in the 2002 elections. It received 19 percent of the vote; and in spite of the huge secularist and anti-government demonstrations that rocked Turkish cities in 2007, the CHP was unable to improve its electoral score, gaining only 20 percent of the vote, less than half of the AKP’s.
Baykal is only the most prominent and contemporary example of this trend, however. Indeed, it is standard practice for Turkish political leaders to stay in control of their parties in spite of successive defeats. The leaders of the now defunct center-right can be said to have gone even further, driving their parties to total collapse. When Tansu Çiller took over the True Path Party in 1993, it had received 27 percent of the vote in the previous elections.
Çiller presided over the party’s decline to 19% in 1995, 12% in 1999, and finally 9,5% in 2002. When Mesut Yilmaz took over ANAP in 1991, the party received 24% of the vote. Yilmaz presided over ANAP’s road to oblivion, receiving 19% in 1995, 13% in 1999, and 5% in 2002. Both parties are now practically defunct.
IMPLICATIONS: The self-destruction of ANAP and DYP, as well as the stagnation of the CHP, have been the major background causes for the emergence to prominence of Islamist and nationalist parties on the Turkish political scene. Indeed, the “far right”, consisting of these two movements that split off from the center-right in the 1970s, has been able to capture the votes of the disaffected centrist voters, who grew increasingly alienated from the traditional establishment parties and their the leadership struggles, corruption, and mismanagement. Seeking to gradually move to the center, the votes of the Islamist and nationalist parties went from 17% in 1991 to 28% in 1995, 33% in 1999, 42% in 2002 and a full 60% in 2007.
Why, then, have Turkish political parties allowed their leaders to destroy them? This is a complex issue, but several explanations can be found. First, Turkey’s political culture remains centered on personalities rather than institutions, and the political struggle focused, in Metin Heper’s words, on “politics” itself or the struggle for power, rather than policies and issues. It arguably goes back to Ismet Inönü’s dominance over the CHP, including having himself elected party chairman for life, and Atatürk’s dominant role in the country’s creation. However, it should be noted that the CHP under Atataürk, in the 1930s, can be said to have had a higher degree of internal democracy – or at least a vetting procedure for candidates – than Baykal’s party today.
Second, party leaders have benefited greatly from Turkey’s political parties law. Political parties are molded into a similar model, where the central secretariat is responsible for and controls all regional branches. In practice, Turkey’s political party leaders have full powers to appoint and to fire the personnel of the party offices around the country, effectively undermining any efforts to bottom-up influence on the party’s politics. Moreover, these procedures have been used by leaders to purge party ranks of all dissent. The law on political parties provides parties with a choice in selecting delegates to national conventions: these can be chosen either through primary elections, or through appointment by the central bodies. Given this choice, it is predictable that practically all Turkish political parties appoint delegates centrally rather than standing the risk of a primary.
In practice, party leaders therefore have the ability to handpick and appoint the delegates to the congresses that in turn decide on the party leadership in general conventions. Some have gone even further: to ensure his position, Baykal amended party by-laws to introduce a statute that required any challenger to the party leader to collect the signatures of 20 percent of the total of convention delegates. Given Baykal’s power over the appointment of delegates, and his track record of punishing any dissent by purging ranks, it is little wonder that neither of his two challengers in the April 2008 convention could muster the strength to even be registered as candidates. Last time a serious challenger to Baykal’s power emerged – Mustafa Sarigül, the Mayor of the Sisli district of Istanbul in 2005 – practically everyone who supported Sarigül’s candidacy was thrown out of the party.
During its first term in power, the AKP seemed to be the exception to the rule. It was run by a quadrumvirate consisting of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gül, Bülent Arinç and Abdullatif Sener. These four leaders found a workable balance, with Arinç’s more Islamist leanings being balanced by Sener’s centrist views. But as reported in the March 12 issue of the Turkey Analyst, that collegial leadership collapsed in mid-2007 as Arinç challenged Erdogan and Gül with an ultimatum, that a “religious” president be elected, and that he would stand for election himself unless one of the two others did. Arinç got his way, but this led to his demotion following the AKP’s re-election, and to Sener’s retirement from politics. Ahead of the 2007 elections, moreover, Erdogan apparently decided single-handedly on the candidate lists, which were substantially purged. Today, Erdogan’s role as party leader is increasingly similar to the tradition established by the likes of Baykal, Çiller and Yilmaz.
CONCLUSIONS: The implications for the long-term development of Turkey’s democracy are substantial. Given the way political parties work, talented individuals refrain from entering politics – or are forced to leave. Instead, yes-sayers are over-represented among those that stay and rise in party ranks: Of the 22 persons that helped re-create the CHP in 1992, not a single one remains in the party. More seriously, this situation has led to the collapse of the political groupings that represent the values and views of most Turks, and that dominated Turkish politics for half a century. Indeed, centrist parties with either a conservative or social-democratic leaning combine the common denominator of most citizens: respect for the conservative masses and their religious views; respect for the principle of secularism; and a pro-Western, pro-European attitude. None of the three parties represented in parliament are able to combine these three main vectors. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that a majority of the people that in 2007 voted for the parties represented in parliament today did soin spite of their leaders, not because of them. This is especially pronounced in the case of the CHP, but valid both for the AKP and the MHP as well, which have approximated the authoritarian leadership style of earlier parties.
This state of affairs adds to the existing instability of Turkish politics, and prevents the healthy exchange of ideas within and between parties. With leader-centered parties, confrontation wins over compromise, and power-seeking over policy. Yet remarkably, the EU seems not to have identified the weakness of the Turkish political parties system in its push for reform. It has stressed the need to liberalize the law on political parties to make it harder to close parties down; but has not seriously grappled with the much more fundamental issue of democratizing the political parties themselves. While it will take a long time for Turkey’s political parties and political culture to move toward a culture of compromise and intra-party democracy, this is the logical place to start. If legislation is amended to force political parties to have delegates appointed through primaries rather than by the central leadership, intra-party debate and democracy will get a fighting chance.