BACKGROUND:Kemal Kilicdaroglu, deputy chairman of the parliamentary group of the CHP and a former technocrat, is a soft-spoken man, not given to the kind of dramatic gestures and demagoguery that is typical of Turkish politics. Sitting in his office in the Turkish Grand National Assembly this May, the view he took of the role of the military as the supposed guardian of secularism was striking. Kilicdaroglu did not fit the common, Western preconception about Turkish secularists: far from being a supporter of military authoritarianism, he recalled the fact that secularism was dealt the severest of blows during the military dictatorship in the 1980s. “There are no deeper, secular sensibilities among the officers’ corps”, he bluntly stated. A few months later, Kilicdaroglu became the target of the General staff’s irritation when he said the same in public, asserting that the moderate Islamist government and the military were indeed “the best of friends”.
When asked what kind of country he imagined Turkey would become in ten to fifteen years, Kilicdaroglu’s pessimistic expectation was that it would be a more religiously conservative country. While that is likely to be the case, that does not necessarily mean that the country will be ruled by the moderate Islamists of the AKP. Indeed, Kilicdaroglu himself has contributed to what may very well turn out to be the beginning of the erosion of the AKP’s public support. Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan has called him “the rising star of politics” that is “shaking the AKP”. His investigations into the alleged corruption among high-level AKP officials have already resulted in one resignation, that of party deputy chairman Saban Disli. This week, in a televised debate from parliament, Kilicdaroglu confronted another deputy chairman of the AKP, Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, whom he has accused of being involved in illegal business activities and in drug smuggling. Kilicdaroglu’s painstaking anti-corruption campaign, together with the corruption case with possible connections to the AKP leadership that has recently been unraveled in Germany have exposed the AKP and is changing the dynamics of Turkish politics.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction to the corruption charges has been a call for a boycott against media outlets that have reported about the judiciary process in Germany; that has turned most of the media, including many columnists who have supported the AKP government, against the prime minister. “Has he lost his mind?” AKP loyalist Yasemin Çongar of Taraf, was led to wonder. Conservative columnists have even expressed solidarity with their secular opponents who have been targeted by the prime minister. In one stroke, the AKP appears to have come close to losing the moral high ground which it has occupied for the last six years. After the several attacks against the freedom of the press, and the AKP’s apparent unwillingness to allow for an investigation into the corruption charges, the moderate Islamists can no longer with any substantial credibility aspire to be seen as a force of democratization and transparency. According to a recent poll, the support for the AKP is down to 36 percent, with the opposition CHP rising to 24 percent.
What has made the AKP attractive to a broad electorate, and not just to the party’s religiously conservative core, was that it was supposed to be different from the corrupt center-right parties that have held a near-monopoly on power for decades. The growing realization that the AKP does not deviate from the traditions of Turkish politics in that respect obviously creates new opportunities for the opposition.
IMPLICATIONS: The anti-corruption campaign led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu broadens the appeal of the CHP, as it demonstrates that the party is not only concerned with the protection of secularism. Until now, the CHP had failed to mount an effective opposition to the AKP. It has been unable to reach out to a broader electorate, not so much because of its principled defense of secularism but because the party did not seem to offer alternatives in other policy areas, and as party leader Deniz Baykal fails to inspire confidence; his authoritarian leadership effectively prevents the development of a party democracy that would give a new generation a chance.
Indeed, the CHP has even managed to repel many centrist voters that otherwise might have considered it their natural choice. While the defense of secularism strikes a strong chord among large sections of Turkish society, the CHP has appeared to be out of touch with the sensibilities of modernist voters in another important respect, as it has come to adopt an anti-European, neo-nationalist rhetoric. The CHP has done so largely in reaction to its perception of an alliance between the Islamists and the West. Indeed, secularist social democrats in particular in the CHP have been disoriented by the Islamists’ change of tactics. In the beginning of this decade, the Islamists abandoned their traditional anti-European stance, providing the ground for their subsequent endorsement by Western opinion. This turning of the tables caught the CHP off guard, and propelled many of its members to a nationalist gut reaction – something that in turn connected with lingering suspicions of Western hidden agendas to weaken Turkey, which have existed since the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that sought to dissolve the country. However, there are signs of a growing realization among social democrats that the CHP must learn of the success of the AKP, and stake out the center ground of politics and embrace Europe. Notably, the CHP is reported to be preparing to nominate candidates with a center-right profile in the upcoming local elections of March 2009.
Aydin Çingi, president of the Social democracy foundation SODEV, notes that “the EU is extremely important”. He exhorts the center-left to make peace with Europe, and reoccupy the ideological terrain that it has unwisely abandoned: “As opposition in Turkey is reduced to saying the opposite of whatever the government says, the CHP has been busy opposing the EU. Yet, the EU harmonization entails just the kind of reforms that a social democratic party would like to see realized. It is now up to the center-left to convince our friends in the EU that a modern, social democratic mass party would in fact further EU harmonization better than the AKP”, Cingi says in a recent interview.
There are other, similar voices. Haluk Sahin, a liberal social democratic academic and journalist, has attracted wide attention with a recent book in which he pleads for a third way in politics, between moderate Islamism and isolationist nationalism. Ötekiler, “The Others”, as his book is titled, are those who belong neither to the Islamists (or the liberals aligned with them) nor to the neo-nationalists. The pro-European center-left and the likewise pro-European and secular center-right currently lack political representation. Given the continued malaise of the center-right, the CHP would be well poised to become the rallying-point of these forces, on the condition that it rids itself of anti-Western nationalism.
It is difficult to imagine that Turkish politics will easily revert to “business as usual”, i.e. that the traditional center-right will take its “rightful” place at the helm of power after the AKP. Presently, the center-right is in shambles. The Democrat party and the Motherland party are hardly noticed at all in the debate. The Democrat party seems to pin its hopes on the eventual return of Tansu Çiller, once a dismal failure as prime minister, while the Motherland party chairman Erkan Mumcu is no less an Islamist than Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the former is in fact much more of an outspoken anti-secularist.
The center-right has basically reached the end of the road in ideological and tactical terms. The Turkish liberal-conservative parties were always marred by a duality: their leadership cadres have been modernist oriented, but in practice they have only paid lip service to secularism, as they have found it electorally expedient to bow to religious conservatism. Today, the religiously conservative part of the electorate has found a more natural home in the AKP, whose leadership is sociologically more representative of those voters. A reemerged center-right would face the challenge not only of re-attracting religiously conservative voters, but of simultaneously convincing secularist center-right voters among the urban middle class of its secular credibility.
CONCLUSIONS: There is strong reason to believe that the effects of the confrontation over secularism of 2007-2008 will reverberate for years. Although Turkish society has been marked by the secularist-Islamic divide for decades, the events of the last two years represent a watershed; it would be a mistake to underestimate its consequences. The confrontation has raised the level of secular sensitivity in civil society. It has created a mass mobilization in favor of secularism as never before. For one thing, it cannot be taken for granted that center-right leaning secularist voters will content themselves anymore with the kind of semi-Islamic alternatives that they have traditionally been offered. That presents a window of opportunity for a CHP that moves to the center.
The fundamental question is whether a modernizing political force in a Muslim context must necessarily accommodate religious conservatism in order to stand a chance of succeeding. Turkish “secularist” liberal-conservatives have thought so. And conservative commentators usually attribute the absence of a strong social democratic movement in Turkey to the “disrespect” shown by the secularist, center-left CHP for the “people’s values”. In fact, secularism ranks high among those values. For a majority, there is nothing alien or repelling about secularism. The weakness of the center-left is more easily explained by the restrictions, and sometimes severe repression, to which the left of all shades has been subjected to during most of the history of the Turkish republic.
To assume that the culturally Westernizing CHP has the potential to evolve into a European-style liberal social democratic party is less far-fetched than the assumption that the AKP, whose leader has recently spoken about Western civilization as “immoral”, is akin to European Christian Democrats.