BACKGROUND: On November 4, 2023, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) elected Özgür Özel as its new chairman. Özel defeated Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who had been the leader of the CHP since 2010. Kılıçdaroğlu steered the CHP to the right, making a sustained effort to embrace the religious right. He aligned the CHP with conservative, nationalist and Islamist parties, nominated conservatives as leading party candidates, deferred to neoliberal orthodoxy and embraced hard-line Turkish nationalism. The assumption that this surrender to the right would be rewarded by conservative voters at the polls proved ill-fated. Kilicdaroglu’s position became untenable after he failed miserably in his presidential bid last May, a defeat that left CHP supporters despondent, indeed angry.
The candidacy of Özel, a long-time close collaborator of Kılıçdaroğlu’s, was initially not greeted with any particular enthusiasm, but Kılıçdaroğlu’s refusal to concede that steering to the right had been a dismal failure and his stubborn unwillingness to consider reversing course doomed him. Özel meanwhile was savvy enough to realize that he needed to offer something new and different, in this case a turn to the left, in order to meet the demand of the party faithful for a clean break with the disappointing Kılıçdaroğlu era.
This is the second time that a leader of the CHP is forced out of office after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a young contender who promises to shift the course of the party to the left. The first time was in 1972, when İsmet İnönü, the successor of Kemal Atatürk both as president and as leader of the CHP, lost the leadership to Bülent Ecevit, a charismatic progressive populist. Indeed, in his speech after he was elected party leader, Özgür Özel praised Ecevit who, he reminded, “in 1972 offered the CHP a new vision inspired by the global, left-wing shift and the rise of the labor movement in Turkey.”
Under Ecevit, the CHP officially declared itself as democratic leftist and joined the Socialist International. Özel opined that “there are important lessons to draw from the 1972 congress that elected Ecevit, assigned him the mission to carry the party to a social democratic position, embrace the labor unions and the oppressed.” This, he pointed out, carried the CHP to power. The CHP came in first in four elections – two of them general and two municipal – during the 1970s. In the general election in 1977 the CHP received its best electoral result to date, 42 percent.
Yet even though the eight years, from 1972 to 1980, that Ecevit led the CHP were the party’s electoral high point, Özel is the first CHP leader since to invoke Ecevit’s social democratic legacy. Özel is proposing to do something that no one has attempted in Turkey since the early 1990s. The CHP was dissolved by the military when it took power in a coup in 1980, and when the party reemerged in the 1990s it did so as nationalist-secularist. Meanwhile, Ecevit, who formed a new party, the Democratic Left Party (DSP), had moved to the right, notwithstanding the party name. Instead, the social democratic alternative was – fleetingly – revived in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Erdal İnönü (a son of İsmet İnönü) who formed the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) that gained some electoral traction. Ultimately, though, social democracy was overrun by the twin rise of Islamic conservatism – which seduced the working class – and of secularist Turkish nationalism – which in turn was a reaction both to the Kurdish rebellion that had started in 1984 and to the perceived threat of Islamization – and that found a large constituency among the urban middle class, the CHP’s traditional base.
IMPLICATIONS: Unlike Kılıçdaroğlu, who sought to expand the CHP’s base by appealing, as he put it, to the mosque congregations, and did so with a right-wing discourse, Özel proposes to sway conservative voters with leftist policies that “object to poverty, inequality and unemployment.” He has also unequivocally condemned the oppression of the Kurds. Özel has chosen to be transparent about the CHP’s relationship with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Parti). This predictably prompted President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to slam Özel, accusing him of having surrendered the CHP, “Atatürk’s party,” to “terrorists.”
Özel argues that 20 million low-income voters, of whom an estimated 16 million voted for the AKP in 2023, stand to gain from the tax reform that the CHP is now advocating together with the Progressive Trade Union Confederation (DISK). In theory, this suggests that the turn to the left will pay off in electoral terms.
Inequality has reached extreme levels in Turkey under the twenty year rule of the AKP. According to the 2022 World Inequality Report compiled by the Paris-based World Inequality Lab, the bottom half of earners in Turkey possess only four percent of the country’s wealth. The wealthiest ten percent owns 67 percent of that wealth.
Yet there is no popular clamor for taxing the wealthy, income redistribution or welfare reforms. One obvious reason is the hold of right-wing ideology in its diverse shades over Turkish society. According to a 2023 survey, 55 percent of Turkey’s population stands to the right: 27.4 percent identify as conservative, 15 percent as nationalist and 12.9 percent as Islamist. Only 9.9 percent identified as social democrats in the same survey. But social democratic views are also espoused by many of those, 16.6 percent, who identify as Kemalist. It’s suggestive that a vast majority, 85.3 percent, of CHP sympathizers call themselves leftist. Özel is thus in tune with the party base. Yet he crucially lacks the advantages that Bülent Ecevit in the 1970s possessed while he faces some of the same obstacles that crippled his predecessor.
As in the 1970s, the CHP is torn by factional divisions and the turn to the left is not unanimously endorsed. The Alevis (a heterodox Muslim minority) in the party resent the ousting of Kılıçdaroğlu, an Alevi, while the party’s most popular politician, the powerful Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu holds center-right views. Moreover, the turn to the left does not only run counter to the views of the majority of the population, it also – as in the 1970s – challenges vested interests.
Crucially, unlike Ecevit who carried the CHP to electoral successes at a time of global, left-wing shift (which, however, did not last) and backed by a powerful labor movement, the new leader of the CHP is proposing a turn to the left in what may well be described as a vacuum: there’s no move to the left globally, while unionization rates in Turkey have plummeted. In the 1970s, 90 percent of the country’s workforce was unionized; twenty years ago, when the AKP came to power, the rate stood at 58 percent. Trade union membership has since dropped further, to around officially 14 percent today, a result of business practices that, with government backing, have discouraged labor membership. Meanwhile, the attempt to revive social democracy in Turkey is sure to elicit the same kind of virulent opposition from business circles as the aborted attempt in the 1970s did.
Social democracy ultimately presupposes that interests of labor and capital can be reconciled, and historically social democrats, like Ecevit in Turkey, have set out to convince the business elite that accommodating the interests of labor would ultimately benefit them as well as it promised to prevent subversive leftism from making inroads among the working class. Since the fall of communism, this incentive has disappeared while the imperative to maintain profit rates ensures that there’s little scope in Turkey for the kind of compromise between capital and labor that social democracy embodies.
As it were, Ecevit was unsuccessful in advancing that compromise, as declining profit rates and Turkey’s current account deficit made it imperative – from the viewpoint of the economic and state elites – to reorient the Turkish economy from import substitution to exports, which in turn called for lowering of wages. To accomplish this, the military crushed the labor movement after taking power in a coup 1980. The situation today is similar. Business profits and monetary stability depend on increased export earnings which in turn require that wages are kept low. Labor activism is checked by the AKP government that regularly bans strikes with reference to “national security.”
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey’s new opposition leader Özgür Özel is proposing to do something that no one has attempted in Turkey since the early 1990s, to revive a social democratic alternative. Yet the CHP’s new leader is making a turn to the left under inauspicious circumstances. The right in its different shades is hegemonic and there is no societal clamor for social justice and equality. Meanwhile, the Turkish labor movement has been reduced to insignificance, depriving social democracy of a base of working class militancy. Yet rampant inequality needs to be addressed, and a left-wing message that addresses economic concerns can help transcend Turkey’s crippling ethnic divisions, encouraging Turkish and Kurdish lower classes to make common cause. It is a way out of Turkey’s democratic impasse.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and the Editor of the Turkey Analyst. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press)