Friday, January 13, 2012

How Much Longer Can "New" Last?

PHOTO from Radikal

Since its disappointing election result in June, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has been internally divided and hopelessly outmaneuvered on multiple fronts.

The delicate state in which the party and its widely perceived feckless leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, finds itself is particularly sad given that the CHP has dramatically transformed itself in the wake of the sex scandal that brought down its former stalwart leader, Deniz Baykal. In contrast to Baykal, who seemed opposed to anything in the slightest progressive, including the EU accession process, minority rights, and a more nuanced understanding of secularism (away from the antiquated and oppressive concept of laïcité), the "new CHP," as the party has since branded itself, is decidedly pro-EU, pro-minority rights, and open to renegotiating the old Kemalist framework of secularism. The party espouses a commitment to liberalism reminiscent of the old AKP, and in few places can one find a hint of the staunch nationalist chauvinism that once dominated its politics.

Yet the "new CHP" might not last much longer. Though the party had expected to win over 30 percent of the vote in June elections, it received just over 25 percent, and since then, some opinion polls show popular support diminishing. More troubling is that the old nationalist stalwarts, headed by Baykal and former party general-secretary Onder Sav, are waiting in the wings to re-assume control should the liberals fail. And fail they might. A petition originating last week has collected the necessary number of signatures to force the CHP to hold an extraordinary congress in March, at which time those Baykal and Sav are likely to attempt a challenge of Kilicdaroglu's leadership.

The call for an extraordinary congress comes at a time when Kilicdaroglu is fighting to appease those more sympathetic to the old guard of his party. These efforts include Kilicdaroglu's visits to Silivri Prison, where numerous alleged members of the Ergenekon organization are being detained on charges of terrorism. These include CHP parliamentarians Mustafa Balbay and Mehmet Haberal, who the CHP ran for parliament and placed high on their party list despite their association with Ergenekon and known nationalist views and much to the advantage of the AKP, which pointed to their election as evidence that the CHP had not changed at all.

Upon his Nov. 9 visit, Kilicdaroglu called Silivri Prison a concentration camp for those who disagreed with the government, and it is these remarks that prompted a zealous prosecutor to charge him with insulting state officials and attempting to influence the judiciary, both of which are illegal and broadly interpreted under the current Penal Code. The prosecutor also filed a request that Kilicdaroglu's parliamentary immunity be lifted. In a fiery denunciation of the charges against him, Kilicaroglu responded in turn that he wished hismmunity would be removed and filed a formal application to the effect so that he could stand trial to face the charges against him -- a move followed by 132 parliamentarians from his party. Kilicdaroglu further said that he could be the next to end up in Silivri Prison, and perhaps even at the gallows.

Yet it is highly unlikely that Prime Minister Erdogan will allow for the removal of Kilicdaroglu's immunity (for more on this, see Murat Yetkin's column, in Turkish), and in fact, Erdogan has spoken against it, accusing Kilicadaroglu of cheap theatrics. Careful not to attract more international criticism or be responsible for what could happen if Kilicdaroglu were brought to trial, Erdogan is instead hoping Kilicdaroglu will fall victim to the divisiveness within his own party. Plus, Erdogan does not have much to fear at the moment from the CHP, which due to circumstances largely beyond its control, has turned into more of a sideshow than a real contestant for power.

That said, Kilicdaroglu, like other progressive elements in the CHP, are in a difficult spot. If they are too progressive, they will lose support from staunch Kemalists sympathetic to the old guard views within their party; yet if they take up the cause of two rather unpopular figures (Balbay and Haberal) and move too much toward the old rhetoric, they are likely to lose the liberals who voted for them in the last election. Kilicdaroglu's most recent attempts to portray himself as a victim under threat of being sent to Silivri are an attempt to take a hardline and demonstrate solidarity with Balbay and Haberal while at the same time seize an opportunity to criticize the specially authorized courts the government has setup to try suspected Ergenekon suspects. Yet, in a large sector of the Turkish public's eyes, this gesturing is more likely to place Kilicdaroglu and the CHP in the camp of Balbay and Haberal rather than as true liberals who stand up for everyone's rights.

The CHP, for its part, is not sure where it stands. Before elections, the party called for an amendment to one of the three currently inviolable first three articles of the constitution that would remove ethnically chauvinist tracings from the current definition of Turkish citizenship  (a key demand of nationalist Kurdish nationalists) only to return to the position that the first three articles should not be amended. Similarly, when the party boycotted parliament, it demanded the release of its own parliamentarians, saying little about the release of the six BDP-supported candidates also imprisoned and unable to take their seats.

Though these inconsistencies are no doubt a symptom of the democracy pains faced by the CHP as its new leadership struggles to revitalize the party and overturn Baykal's legacy (Baykal dominated the party for over 18 years), party officials should recognize that the increase it did make in its votes -- while shy from the 30 percent hoped for -- is the result of a more progressive, inclusive party that, at least in its campaign rhetoric, espoused hope for a "Turkey for everyone." The party did pick up votes from many liberals and progressives, a large number of whom have become disenchanted with the AKP and its increasing authoritarian tendencies. That said, this new support extended to the CHP is still incipient and not wide-reaching, and few voters, even if they voted for the party, trust it will deliver on the social democratic policies promised. Support for Kilicdaroglu, who simply does not compare to Erdogan at a rhetorical level, is probably lower.

So far, Erdogan has taken advantage of the CHP's dilemma. Kilicdaroglu, an Alevi with family ties to Dersim, where in 1937-8 over 10,000 Alevi (and Zaza) Kurds were killed in air strikes by Turkish forces, has long-proven to be more liberal on the Kurdish issue than the old guard within his party. The strikes occurred under the leadership of the CHP (though a much older, and obviously much different party), and in the last years of Ataturk's life. In November, in a brilliant political move, Erdogan apologized for the killings, a move sure to spark division within the CHP. Former CHP deputy chairman Onur Oymen's remarks toward Alevis had divided the party at the end of 2009 (before Kilicdaroglu came to power), and the prime minister knew it would divide the party once more, putting pressure on Kilicdaroglu at a time when he was simply trying to stay alive in his party and avoid an extraordinary party congress, which looks like it is now happening.

With Kilicdaroglu now evermore associated with Balbay and Haberal, especially given that both men were behind the CHP's boycott of parliament after the elections, Erdogan will now take credit for not removing the opposition leader's immunity -- for taking the high road. Kilicdaroglu will instead be let to fall on his own sword or that of Baykal, with whom Erdogan visited this past December, in order to, reportedly, discuss allowing Haberal to visit his dying mother.

Whether the "new CHP" will survive attempts by the stalwarts in its wings to bring back the old "Party of No" is yet to be seen, but is of critical importance at a time when anything liberal and progressive should be preserved. There has not been a viable opposition party in Turkey since the AKP came to power, which indubitably allowed the ruling party to consolidate its power over the past ten years. Though "the new CHP" is perhaps not yet viable, it is the closest thing Turkey has seen to a legitimate social democratic party since Bulent Ecevit's troubled Democratic Left Party in the 1990s. Baykal might no longer be holding the reins of the CHP, but it is not quite clear whether Kilicdaroglu is either, nor whether he will be able to hold onto power much longer.

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