BACKGROUND: With the exception of two brief periods in the 1990s, Deniz Baykal (born 1938) had led the staunchly secularist CHP since 1992. Although he paid lip service to the CHP’s ostensible social democratic leanings, in practice Baykal had jettisoned any attempt at a constructive political platform in favor of a strident nationalism and an instinctive opposition to any policy initiated by the AKP. His cantankerous personality and corrosive negativity meant that he consistently failed to capture the public imagination. Even those who voted for the party often did so not out of hope but out of despair at the lack of any alternative. Although it remained the second largest part in parliament, the CHP looked jaded and bereft of ideas.
In contrast – particularly during the period 2002-2005 – the AKP appeared to teem with kinetic energy. Although supporters and opponents of the party engaged in frequently fierce debates about the nature and extent of the changes that the AKP was trying to introduce, few doubted the AKP’s appetite for change itself. By comparison, both the CHP and the other main opposition party – the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) – appeared lackluster and obdurately inert.
Yet Baykal displayed remarkable tactical acumen when it came to retaining control over the CHP, consistently marginalizing and eliminating any potential threats to his leadership. As a result, Baykal seemed to be as irremovable as he was unelectable: to the point where AKP ministers would privately joke that the first thing they did when they woke in the morning was to pray for Baykal’s long life and continued good health.
Such sentiments suggest that it is highly unlikely that – as Baykal has claimed – anyone in the higher echelons of the AKP was involved in the secret recording and posting on the internet of a video apparently showing Baykal in a state of undress with Nesrin Baytok, his former secretary, who is now a CHP member of parliament. Baykal immediately dismissed the video as a politically-motivated fabrication. But he stopped short of denying an affair with Baytok.
On May 10, three days after the video was posted on the internet, Baykal announced that he was resigning as leader of the CHP ahead of the party’s national congress on May 22-23. Initially, there was speculation that Baykal’s resignation was merely a ploy designed to trigger calls for him to return to the party leadership. Indeed, Baykal loyalists soon began camping outside his private residence in a bid to persuade him to reconsider his decision.
But, if the resignation really was a ploy, it rapidly backfired. On May 17, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the popular deputy head of the CHP parliamentary group announced that he would stand as a candidate for the party leadership. On May 18, 77 of the 81 CHP provincial party heads signed a declaration supporting Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership. No other candidates came forward. On May 22,amid an almost carnival atmosphere, the CHP national congress elected Kılıçdaroğlu as its new leader with support of 1,189 out of the 1,197 delegates. On May 23, in an even clearer demonstration that the CHP had entered a new era, only 28 of the 80 members of the Party Assembly were reelected. Virtually all of the Baykal loyalists in the Party Assembly lost their seats.
IMPLICATIONS: A member of the heterodox Alevi community, Kılıçdaroğlu was born in the predominantly Kurdish eastern province of Tunceli in 1948. He spent most of his professional career as a civil servant in the Finance Ministry before entering parliament in 2002. He first caught the public eye in 2008, when he made public a series of documents detailing corruption allegations against leading members of the AKP. In television appearances, his calm, reasoned manner and the apparent absence of a voracious ego immediately distinguished him from most of his colleagues and rivals; and, when combined with his slight build, moustache, balding head and metal-rimmed glasses, soon led to him being nicknamed “Gandhi”. But there were doubts about whether he had leadership qualities or possessed the political charisma to hold his own in the testosterone-driven name-calling that characterizes Turkish political debate.
Nevertheless, in the run-up to the CHP national congress on May 22-23, there was a palpable sense of excitement across the left and center left of the political spectrum with some commentators describing Kılıçdaroğlu as the heir to the populist tradition of Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006), who served as prime minister during the heyday of social democracy in Turkey in the 1970s. On May 22, Ecevit’s widow, Rahsan Ecevit, joined former CHP dissidents and social democrats from other parties in attending the CHP national congress in a show of support for Kılıçdaroğlu.
In a succinct, 70 minute speech to the congress, Kılıçdaroğlu vigorously demonstrated his social democratic credentials, emphasizing his commitment to improving the living standards of the impoverished and the marginalized, regardless of belief or ethnicity. In contrast to Baykal, whose speeches often appeared to consist of little more than invective, Kılıçdaroğlu focused on concrete pledges: ranging from the expansion of social security coverage to comprehensive judicial reform, the lowering of the electoral threshold for representation in parliament, increased accountability, the limiting of parliamentary immunity and greater freedom of expression. He repeatedly contrasted the continuing hardship suffered by the poorer sections of Turkish society – who currently form the AKP’s grassroots support – with the spectacular wealth accumulated by the leading members of the AKP, their friends and relatives since the party came to power in 2002. In an indication that he was prepared to mix it with the frequently brusque AKP leader, he referred to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not, as Turkish etiquette requires, as “Prime Minister” but simply by his first name. As he left the stage to a standing ovation, Kılıçdaroğlu symbolically donned a black, flat cap similar to the one worn by Ecevit.
Although the pro-AKP media tried to play down the importance of Kılıçdaroğlu’s election, the faces of the CHP members at the congress left no doubt that they believed that they had witnessed something historic. Ironically, the only recent parallel for a party leader being able to generate so much energy, enthusiasm and exuberance in a speech to a party congress is Erdoğan during the AKP’s first years in power.
Perhaps more significantly, the promises of change in Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech to the CHP congress reinforced the impression of a remarkable turnaround in Turkish politics in the space of just two weeks. The AKP came to power presenting itself as a dynamic new force, a challenge to a repressive and corrupt status quo which was indifferent to the needs and aspirations of the mass of the population. When compared with the MHP and the CHP under Baykal, the AKP was still able to portray itself as representing the future rather than the past. Suddenly, with Baykal’s resignation, the image has been reversed. For the moment at least, it is Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP which appears as the party of change, movement and momentum.
It is too early to predict whether Kılıçdaroğlu and the CHP will be able to maintain its momentum through to the next general election, which is due to be held in July 2011. Leftist parties in Turkey are notoriously prone to factional infighting. It is also unclear whether Kılıçdaroğlu will be able to put together a strong enough team to resist the inevitable AKP counter-attack. For the moment, the government and the pro-AKP media appear as stunned as everyone else by the apparent pace of change in the CHP. But eventually they will respond.
Nevertheless, opinion polls suggest that the resignation of Baykal has given the CHP a major boost. A poll published in Habertürk newspaper on May 15 when it was still unclear who would stand to replace Baykal, put the CHP at 27.2 percent, up from 24.8 percent before Baykal stepped down. The AKP stood at 33.8 percent, down from 38.7 percent before the resignation. A poll published by the A & G research company on May 19 gave the CHP 32.3 percent. If the figure was to be repeated in the next general election, the CHP would not only prevent the AKP from securing an overall majority but could even emerge as the largest party in parliament.
CONCLUSIONS: Deniz Baykal’s resignation has deprived the ruling AKP of what was arguably one of its greatest electoral assets. It is still too early to predict with any certainty whether or not the CHP will be able to sustain the reinvigorated momentum generated by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s election. At the very least, the AKP as suddenly found itself facing a credible rival for power. As a result, in the months ahead, it is not just the new CHP which will face its first real test but also the AKP.
In the last general election in July 2007, the AKP was able to campaign on a theme of continuity, and the party capitalized on the military’s highly unpopular intervention in politics Recent Turkish history suggests that, when the AKP mobilizes its resources to counter the CHP, the response is likely to be highly negative and include numerous smear stories.. Yet, in a country where the majority of the population is facing financial hardship, whether or not the AKP can resist the challenge from the CHP is ultimately likely to depend on its ability to recapture the most precious of political commodities which Kılıçdaroğlu repeatedly emphasized in his speech of 22 May: namely, the hope of better things to come.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".