BACKGROUND: The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is Turkey’s founding party. Yet the party of Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, has not fared well in democratic elections. The CHP has a long string of electoral defeats to show since the first multi-party election was held in 1950, a string only broken in 1977 when it scored an all-time high with 41 percent of the votes. The party hit the bottom in 1999 when it received a dismal 8.7 percent of the votes.
The election of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as new party leader has raised the hopes of the CHP. There is a general expectation among party supporters that the new leader stands to revive the fortunes of the party and reverse its decades-long decline. That decline – from the near 40 percent in 1950 to 20 percent in 2007 – is generally attributed to the CHP’s identification with the state apparatus and its corresponding estrangement from the popular masses and in particular from their cultural and religious values.
Indeed, the CHP’s sole electoral victory, in 1977, underscores the pertinence of that analysis. The 1970s was a period when the Republican People’s Party presented itself as a populist, not as a statist, alternative. Its charismatic leader, Bülent Ecevit, deliberately distanced the party from the state establishment, most notably breaking ranks with the military. Ecevit opposed the military coup in 1971, a stance for which he was electorally rewarded. Perhaps even more importantly, he reoriented the CHP from stale Kemalism, away from dogmatic secularism toward a version of social democracy that sought to make room for the cultural values of the Anatolian peasantry.
However, Bülent Ecevit never really got a fair chance to prove the viability of such an alternative as the CHP and the left in general was crushed by the military dictatorship in the 1980s, a blow from which the then nascent social democratic movement in Turkey never recuperated. What has since paraded as “social democracy” in Turkish politics has been Kemalist statism and nationalism, until now making the 1970s seem like a brief parenthesis in the 87-year old history of the CHP.
In a symbolic gesture after his election two weeks ago, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu donned a peaked cap of the sort worn in rural Anatolia, and which Bülent Ecevit had made a point of wearing as a populist trademark. The bow to the populist past of the CHP was deliberate; Kılıçdaroğlu is resurrecting Ecevit’s social democratic heritage, announcing departures from militarism, statism and rigid secularism.
In interviews accorded since becoming the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has lambasted every single one of the military’s coups and interventions in politics, from the coup in 1960 to the infamous e-memorandum of the General staff in 2007, including the so-called post-modern coup in 1997 that brought down the country’s first Islamist-led government. “Necmettin Erbakan (the Islamist Prime Minister in 1997) should have resisted the military”, declared Kılıçdaroğlu. It is indeed a remarkable statement by the leader of a party that has come to be viewed as the mouthpiece of the General staff. Just as remarkable is the CHP leader’s denouncement of the military’s attempt in 2007 to hinder the election of Abdullah Gül as president, an attempt that was certainly not condemned by his predecessor, Deniz Baykal.
Vintage CHP electoral poster
IMPLICATIONS: Speaking to the Turkey Analyst in 2008, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu revealed his intention to accommodate cultural and religious conservatism, declaring that “from now on we are going to address ourselves to the mosque congregations”. Indeed, Kılıçdaroğlu has already proven that he is capable of reaching out to the sectors of Turkish society that have traditionally shunned the elitist secularism of the CHP. He managed to increase the votes of the CHP with 25 percent in the municipal election in Istanbul in 2009, scoring a record 38 percent. Although he failed in his bid to unseat the AKP mayor, Kılıçdaroğlu nevertheless had proved to be an able campaigner among the religious working class. Unlike the die-hard secularists that dominate among the base of the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu refuses to ascribe existential overtones to the matter of the Islamic headscarf. “I don’t see our girls and women who wear the headscarf as reactionaries”, he stated. And he has declared his intention to “surmount the cultural barriers”.
Such rhetoric holds out the promise of a grand reconciliation that would bridge the secularist-conservative divide. Kılıçdaroğlu may be the kind of leader that could help the secularist minority come to terms with the conservative majority culture. Asked by the Turkey Analyst in 2008 what kind of country he thinks Turkey will have become twenty years from now, Kılıçdaroğlu predicted that it will be a much more conservative country. His view of secularism was unsentimental: “Secularism is something that resonates among the sophisticated parts of our society”, he claimed. Acknowledging the reality of a deeply conservative society, the CHP is unsentimentally jettisoning a secularist jargon that serves no electoral purpose; indeed, it is counter-productive. The signs of an ideological repositioning could in fact be discerned already under the last years of Deniz Baykal’s leadership.
The “New CHP” is not dissimilar to the “New Labor” of Tony Blair that successfully reinvented itself as a social conservative party in the 1990s. Compared to its British counterpart, the new CHP has a more distinctly old fashioned social democratic flavor: Kılıçdaroğlu proposes to prop up the welfare state by extending the coverage of social security. Yet that is a message that together with the bow to religious conservatism could sway enough voters to put a repetition of the historical 1977 election within the reach of the CHP; indeed, the party has already come to be perceived as a credible contender in the general elections that are due to be held next year, with its support ranging around 32-34 percent in the polls.
In the short term, the resurrection of the CHP has a beneficial psychological effect: Sencer Ayata, a sociologist who has become a member of the new party board of the CHP, puts it succinctly when he observes that the spirits of the traditional base of the CHP – the “westernized” urban middle class, in other words the marginalized secularist minority – have suddenly been revived: “For the first time, they now think that it is possible to envision another world after 2011”, a Turkey that is not ruled by the AKP. In Ayata’s perspective, the seduction of the popular masses, amassed in the run-down suburbs of the big cities, is designed to help secure the way of life of the secularist residents of the lush urban quarters. Long demoralized, the latter now feel that they have been offered a new lease on life.
Bülent Ecevit, Kılıçdaroğlu's role model
CONCLUSIONS: Secularism – or at least its jargon – may be dispensed with, ultimately because its adherents realize that they are a minority and what matters is to save the day. It is however an altogether different matter with nationalism: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu may challenge militarism, statism and rigid secularism; he is not about to propose any equivalent departure from the genetically inscribed Turkish nationalism of the CHP. Contrary to secularism, nationalism holds sway over the vast majority of the country. A Kurd from a region that was devastated by the army in the 1930s following an uprising, Kılıçdaroğlu has a victim’s perspective on the Kemalist attempt to impose a homogenous identity on society. Last year Kılıçdaroğlu called for the resignation of the deputy chairman of the CHP who had protested against the Kurdish opening of the AKP government and justified the massacres of the Kurds in the 1930s.
However, since he was elected party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has moved toward unmitigated nationalism: Initially, he sought to dodge the Kurdish issue, making the case that ethnic identities – be they Kurdish or Turkish – ought to be transcended. Although unrealistic, that stance was at least well intentioned. Then, commenting the Kurdish opening of the AKP, the CHP leader relapsed into the traditional rhetoric of the Kemalists, stating that “we condemn these policies that sow division within Turkey.”
In electoral terms, that stance would seem to make sense: The CHP is eliminated in the Kurdish Southeast as it is, where religious conservative Kurds vote for the AKP and where the Peace and democracy party (BDP) is the natural choice of the secularist nationalist Kurds. Kılıçdaroğlu would have little to gain from appealing to these groups in the same way that he reaches out to the conservatives; but he would certainly have risked losing the Turkish nationalist base of the CHP.
Yet it is nevertheless unfortunate that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who otherwise cuts an uncommonly moderate figure in Turkey’s ideologically charged and deeply polarized politics, has surrendered to nationalism. Oral Çalışlar, a columnist in the center-left daily Radikal, calls for a leader who can patiently explain to the Turks that Turkey will not move one inch closer toward solving the Kurdish issue without recognizing the Kurds’ identity demands. He may be right, but Kılıçdaroğlu is not yet a candidate for that role.
Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst, and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© 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".