Monday, 08 November 2010

The Leader of the "New CHP" Faces Daunting Challenge as He Sets Out to Reconcile Kemalism with Freedom

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 19 of the Turkey Analyst)

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, has now decisively taken charge of the party. He signals that a departure from old, ideological habits is impending and vows that the “New CHP” will introduce freedom. However, there is a fateful disconnect between Kılıçdaroğlu’s message and the resentments of the core constituency of his party. Kılıçdaroğlu will have difficulty escaping the fate that is usually reserved for well-meaning reformers who challenge the certainties of ossified belief systems.

BACKGROUND:  Last week, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was elected the leader of the Republican People’s party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, last May, fired Önder Sav, the long time party secretary.  Sav has for decades been the chief power broker in the CHP; he has held the reins of power over the party organization, and he played the decisive role when the former party leader Deniz Baykal was ousted. Indeed, it was to him that Kılıçdaroğlu owed his ascension to the leadership. Until now, Kılıçdaroğlu had in fact been party leader only in name. By sacking Sav, the new leader of the CHP has taken charge of the party, and he signaled that a departure from old, ideological habits is impending. The former, all powerful party secretary had embodied an ossified, dogmatic secularism that has denied the CHP any chance of becoming a real contender for power.

The day that he sacked the party secretary and officially parted ways with the old guard, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu made the first mention ever of the “new CHP”. The ousted party secretary reacted to the vow to renew the party by stating that no one has so far succeeded in remaking the CHP; he went on to assure that the party was destined to remain forever “the party of Mustafa Kemal”, CHP’s founder and Turkey’s first president. Indeed, an inability to adapt to changing times and circumstances has been the CHP’s defining feature, ensuring that the party has remained in opposition since 1950, except for a brief interlude in the 1970s, when an ultimately unsuccessful attempt was made to recast it as a populist, social democratic party. The Republican People’s party has been the party of the republic, of the state and of the state elite, rather than the party of the people, of the broader masses; it has been the vector of the official ideology of the republic – Turkish nationalism and secularism – and has remained estranged from the culture, values and mores of the vast majority of the people.

As he asserts his leadership over the party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu seems poised to reinvent the CHP: “We are going to side with the people”, he vowed, implicitly repudiating the traditional, statist stance of the party. There is in fact logic to the detachment from the state since the state has changed hands during the rule of the AKP. Kılıçdaroğlu pledged that the new team at helm of the CHP is going to be “libertarian” and that it will “introduce freedom”, stating that “we are going to tear down the empire of fear”.

At one level, those words were aimed internally, targeting the suffocating hold over the party that the old guard, personified by the sacked party secretary, has had. On another level, they evoked the widespread fear among the electoral base of the CHP.

“Empire of fear” is how the constituency of the CHP – the Kemalists, or alternately the “worried moderns”, as they have come to be referred to in Turkish sociological parlance – has come to think of AKP-ruled Turkey. In the wake of their political marginalization during the last decade, they have come to fear not only that their “westernized” life style is going to be infringed, but that persecution and indeed even imprisonment is what the opponents of the AKP state can expect. However, the professed ambition of the leader of the “New CHP” is to reach beyond the party’s core constituency, and that attempt will be disabled if he caters to the party’s core constituency’s fears, instead of seeking to allay them.

Enver Aysever, who is one of the new faces in the party assembly of the CHP, underlines that Kılıçdaroğlu intends to broaden the appeal of the party, by courting other groups besides the “republican elite and the educated”. He insists that “Kemal Kilicdaroglu is well aware that being a leftist in the 21st century means being a libertarian”, and that “he is now indicating that the defense of individual rights and liberties is going to be accorded as high a priority as problems related to class.”

Önder Sav

IMPLICATIONS: In fact, Kılıçdaroğlu’s challenge is truly daunting. What he says, and even more so what he hints at, presupposes that Kemalism – the ideology of the CHP – can be reconciled with the ideal of freedom, with a principled defense of individual rights and liberties. Freedom does not figure among the “six arrows”, the founding tenets of the CHP which are nationalism, secularism, republicanism, statism, populism and adherence to the revolution. However, Kemal Atatürk’s ultimate aim, as he disempowered Islam, was to ensure the emancipation of the mind from religious dogmas. In that sense, the case can be made that Kemalism need not be inimical to freedom, that on the contrary, it originally represented a prerequisite for Turkey’s eventual “liberalization”. Yet the equation of religion with superstition and dogmatism has in itself become a dogma, which represents anything but an “enlightened” evolution.

In what probably was meant as a bow to the historical heritage, Kılıçdaroğlu described the CHP as “the party of revolutionaries”; in fact, he is more of a “quiet force” – which is also his chosen identity on Facebook – rather than a polarizing revolutionary, as he aspires to transcend the divisions of Turkish society. Nonetheless, if seriously meant, it is a revolutionary act to suggest that the CHP appropriates freedom as its ideological mission.

The ideological challenge is compounded by a sociological one: To propose, as Kılıçdaroğlu has been doing, that the CHP, the party of the “republican elites” reaches out to the others of society, notably to the religious conservatives, makes electoral sense, since the CHP can never hope to gain power relying exclusively on what is a minority. However, it is nevertheless a suggestion that defies the sociology of Turkey; the country is not united in diversity, but rather torn apart by cultural differences, with the separate groups viewing each other as if they were aliens. The reformist, indeed iconoclastic, leader of the CHP will first have to succeed in convincing the “republican elites” (the “worried moderns”) that the religious conservative “others” of society are not an invading enemy force that has usurped power. Indeed, Aysever, the most outspoken of the advocates of the “new CHP”, recently admonished the party faithful against treating AKP leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as if he were the commander in chief of an occupation force.

There is in fact a fateful disconnect between Kılıçdaroğlu’s message and the resentments of the core constituency of his party. Those who look up Kılıçdaroğlu on Facebook are greeted with the message “now it’s time for change”. Turkey has indeed changed almost beyond recognition in a very short time. The religious can no longer be kept out of sight, and the “new CHP” has come around to accepting that the Islamic headscarf is worn on university campuses. Eventually, it can be expected that the ban is going to be lifted in the rest of the public sphere and perhaps in other parts of the school system as well. The remnants of the Kemalist edifice are fast crumbling. Yet these are changes that are abhorred by the Kemalists. Above all, the Kemalists are unaccustomed to think of themselves as being those who have to change, as they were the ones who were supposed to be in the vanguard of progress.

Kemalism postulated that the people was ignorant, and prescribed that it be educated, ensuring that the pious became “enlightened” and that the Kurds were turned into Turks. There is nothing in this historical heritage that allows for accommodating change that has not been decreed by the Kemalist elites. Kılıçdaroğlu’s calls for change, as well as his statements in general, speak of a recognition that those who thought that they knew best must acknowledge that the “others” of society are citizens of equal stature, not to be lectured and hectored, but with whom one needs to engage in a conversation instead of a confrontation.

CONCLUSIONS: Assuming that Kılıçdaroğlu does succeed in living up to what the rhetorical figure of the “New CHP” conjures up – which is by no means certain – the chances are still slim that the electoral fortunes of the party will be reversed in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, Kılıçdaroğlu’s non-confrontational discourse, the fact that he aspires to be something else than an uncompromising champion of the cause of his own side, cannot but inspire hope that the notion of deliberative democracy is about to be introduced in Turkey.  Kılıçdaroğlu will nevertheless have difficulty escaping the fate that is usually reserved for well-meaning reformers who challenge the certainties of ossified belief systems. Ultimately, it is his foe, the deposed party secretary Önder Sav, that could be proven right; his prediction that the CHP will never change spoke of the conviction of those who deem themselves to be in possession of unchangeable truths about the supposedly inevitable march of history. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wagers that change can work in the opposite direction, that a party that ordered society to change, but which societal evolution has defied, can itself adapt to changed circumstances, with its Jacobin ideology reinterpreted as to accommodate the notion of freedom.

It could be that the leader of the “New CHP” is inspired by the “New Labor” of Tony Blair. But he runs the risk of being haunted by the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev.

© 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 (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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