Returned again from Diyarbakir, I spent yesterday in Kocaeli listening off-and-on again to the CHP's party congress on the radio. A civil servant who served for years as a public accountant, newly-elected CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu made his name by becomng one of the CHP's most aggressive top party members when it came to attacking corruption scandals within the AKP. In his speech yesterday, Kilicdaroglu talked on corruption, as well as issues of poverty and unemployment. Though the party platform has changed little, Kilicdaroglu has replaced three-fourths of the CHP's Party Assembly's 80 members, removing many members close to now fallen Baykal and causing many to speculate that the CHP is in for big changes. This may well be wishful thinking, and only time will tell, but the exuberance in the leftist press is likely to keep Kilicdaroglu and talk of a "new CHP" in the news for the next week.
Other Turkey goings-on are falling a far distant second in the news cycle, all eyes instead focused on a constant stream of punditry as to just what the new leader means for Turkish politics and the CHP in coming 2011 parliamentary elections. Might the AKP be forced into a coalition with the CHP? And, might Turkey finally have a reasonably powerful social democratic presence in party politics, becoming more than the "party of no" that frustrated even the most entrenched AKP opponents during the Baykal years? The enthusiasm definitely evinces people's frustration with the CHP over the years and a yearning by many people for a strong alternative. Whether the CHP will live up to expectations is another question altogether, but at the moment, the sheer fact that so many seem hopeful that a renewed CHP might bring about change spells out just how much people have wanted change and just how deep the frustration with Baykal and the CHP's "party of no" politics has been in recent years.
For some past analysis on the CHP and Baykal's former iron-clad hold over the party, see my analysis following the CHP's 2008 party congress, as well as this broader take on the state of the Turkish left. The CHP's politics in recent years have indeed been so centered in being in the opposition, in addition to emphasizing Turkish nationalism over democratic socialism, that the party has often found itself facng condemnation from the Socialist International (for example, see July 25 post).
Kilicdaroglu's civil servant profile and calm manner (the latter, combined with a slight physical resemblence, has earned him comparisons to Ghandi) have been heralded by some as a positive development, perhaps leading to a more reasoned, less exhibitionist politics. Yet this same profile has also caused others to dismiss the new leader as potentially weak and inexperienced. Significantly, Kilicdaroglu hales from Tunceli, and a practicing Alevi, a religious minority group that has a long history of close ties to the CHP and had become increasingly critical of what some Alevis say is a Sunni Islamist bias in the AKP, the CHP's support for Kilicdaroglu might also have something to do with recent attempts within the party to broaden its support base and set it more apart from the ultra-nationalist MHP, which has gained votes in recent years largely at the expense of the CHP. Whereas the CHP under Baykal often seemed to resist AKP-led reform for the sheer sake of resistance, the MHP staked out a more pragmatic position, staunchly opposing reforms for minority rights and in the area of freedom of expression while forging alliances with the AKP on issues involving secularism, such as the AKP-MHP headscarf legislation in early 2008. In this way, the MHP has managed to win religious nationalists while the CHP has remained stagnate, its supporters increasingly frustrated with the party's intransigence and inner-party authoritarianism. Here is an excerpt from a piece I wrote back in February 2008:
Highly-criticized in liberal circles, comprised of those who seek an expansion of personal liberties, but yet are critical of AKP's pro-market, libertarian-type ideology, Baykal's CHP is frequently seen as a barrier to the entrance of a viable leftist politics. While AKP exists as the only pro-Europe party, the party's center-right, liberal democratic credentials remain unchallenged. AKP, perhaps best considered a center-right party akin to Germany's Christian Democrats, is thus the only party capable of courting pro-Europe liberals. Thus, the leftist constituency in Turkish politics is left without adequate representation, their social democratic values left unvoiced in AKP's center-right politics or lost completely thanks to CHP's unrelenting nationalism and demagoguery, a seemingly right-wing, conservative politics more in line with the proto-fascist MHP than with the social democratic parties of Europe.Since I wrote this, disenfranchisement with the AKP among liberals and leftists has only continued to grow, oftentimes alongside fears of what many read here as the party's attempts to consolidate its hold on power -- the reason why many who would under other circumstances not be opposed to the judicial reform promised by the constitutional amendment package strongly opposed the AKP's efforts this spring, an opposition al the mroe heightened by the AKP's conducting of the Ergneekon investigation and seemignly self-interested attempts at self-preservation (for example, its exclusion of reform of the 10 percent threshold and failure to adopt the Venice Criteria for party closure in the reform package). Under these circumstances, a truly re-generated CHP has an even better chance of attracting voters than it did two years ago.
So, what is CHP's relation to the left? In name, the oldest party in Turkey and the party of Atatürk, CHP underwent many transformations in its long and turbulent history. Following the rise of leftist politics in the 1960s, CHP became the manifestation of Turkey's mainstream left. Under the leadership of Bülent Ecevit in the late 1960s and 1970s, CHP espoused a social democratic politics built on a Kemalist foundation. In many ways, its politics mirrored that found in the emerging social democracies of Europe, and it even joined the Socialist International. While it is true that the party always held true to a rigid protection of the state's secular identity, it also promoted civil liberties, and under Ecevit's leadership, decried military interference in politics. However, following the 1980 coup and a complete re-working of the political left, CHP re-emerged weak alongside an array of other parties, all of which fell short of representing the leftism that had changed the face of Turkish politics in the two decades prior to the military's violent intervention.
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In so many ways, the demise of the Turkish left can be attributed to its' members own dogmatic prescriptions for the role of religion in society. The left's strict interpretations of secularism and conflation of the Islamist threat have proved a serious distraction for the advocacy of the social and economic reforms that typify leftist existence in other countries. As the sole inheritor of the left's legacy, CHP is a frightfully sad representation of its past history. Caught up in what it imagines as a virtual state of war against Turkey's internal and external enemies, the CHP and its secular elite are more likely to espouse Hobbes than Rousseau or Mill. Rather than protecting free speech, it must be stifled to preserve the integrity of a state facing threats from Islamists and Kurds. Rather than allowing for democracy, elected parties must be periodically closed because they might threaten the nationalist or secularist order. Rather than joining truly social democratic nations in Europe, EU accession must be held circumspect because it involves a surrendering of centralized state control, a re-negotiation of secularism, and countenance liberalism, for individuals vested with too much liberty might act contrary to state ideology and the carefully devised plans of the ruling elite.
Many liberals have left CHP, casting relucant votes for the center-right and vaguely Islamist AKP rather than continue to support the stumbling block Baykal and the CHP have thrown up in the way of Turkey's larger political development. How many of the many "floating voters" that cast ballots for AKP in 2002, and again in 2004 and 2007, were disgruntled leftists, fed up with Baykal and CHP authoritarianism? Other liberals have continued to support CHP, but not without due anguish. Still, yet another group, perhaps not liberal, per se, but frustrated with Baykal and the CHP status quo while equally afraid of AKP's economic liberalization schemes and "creeping conservatism," continue to support CHP rather than wed themselves to a more liberal vision of Turkish politics, a liberal ideology that if properly formulated, might coalesce the reasons for their resentment toward AKP with an incipient support for individual liberties and democratic pluralism.
However, there are reasons for guarded skepticism as well. Kilicdaroglu would not likely have been elected had he too many radical changes in mind, and CHP Secretary-General Onder Sav will continue to play a powerful ahnd. Additionally, in drafting the list for the Party Assembly, it is clear plenty of compromises had to be made. Kilicdaroglu lauded Baykal as a great leader yesterday, and said little on the most controversial issues, like secularism and minority rights. Instead, he focused his criticism on the AKP, accusing it of using religion and ethnicity in politics to raise political tensions while offering little in terms of concrete solutions for Turkey's most pressing problems. On the Kurdish question, despite his Tunceli background (a province that is heavily Kurdish), Kilicaroglu, even more than the AKP, stressed the economic dimension of the problem with little discussion of cultural or expanded poltical rights for Kurds other than lowering the 10 percent threshold, a move that would indeed benefit the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. (On the other side of the equation, Kilicdaroglu twice broke with his party on minority issues: one, in issuing strong criticism of then-CHP deputy party leader Onur Oymen's incendiary remarks that Turkey's attack on Alevis in Dersim in 1938 was justified, and again, in hinting that the CHP might support for an amnesty for PKK fighters.) There is also concern that a mild-manned Kilicdaroglu, who has less experience as a politician than others within top CHP ranks, is up for the job of governing a party with so many strong personalities, many of whom will likely vying for power in Baykal's absence. There are also, most cynically, and on the far right, some opinion leaders who have characterized the Baykal scandal and Kilicdaroglu's subsequent election as a project of Ergenekon. (For mixed reactions in the Turkish press, click here.)
What the future holds is almost anyone's guess, but right now many are just simply enjoying the prospect of change. For more talk of Kilicdaroglu's election, see Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal, who uses a comparison between former CHP leaders Bulent Ecevit and Baykal to delineate two different and divergent roads which the CHP under Kilicdaroglu might take. See also liberal Attilla Yayla's skeptical analysis, as well as Levent Koker's discussion within the context of the ongoing constitutional amendment process.