Back to the future in Turkish politics: CHP in search of a social democrat identity

Kilicdaroglu not only promised to address the problems of the country’s 17 million poor, but tied the reforms to a timeline, not at all common in Turkish politics. 

Müjge Küçükkeleş
28 April 2015
The CHP's first rally in Istanbul, April 11.

The CHP's first rally in Istanbul, April 11.Demotix/Avni Kantan. All rights reserved.On April 19, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) launched its election manifesto to a storm of applause; nonetheless the clapping is not appreciative. Under the ‘clapping as a nation’ slogan, CHP recently kicked off a negative campaign against the AK Party where clapping is used as a means of protest at the government’s performance over the last decade. Many found this direct targeting of the ruling AK Party, provocative and aggressive, running the risk of alienating voters. However, the campaign did have the required impact: people are talking about it, and it is backed up with some concrete policy proposals.  

CHP’s chairman, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has announced his party’s four-pillar election manifesto: strengthening Turkey’s parliamentary democracy, building a social democrat economy, turning Turkey into a competitive economy and strengthening state institutions. Kilicdaroglu states that as the founding party of the Turkish Republic, which also transitioned the country to a multi-party system, CHP has a new role now:  creating a first class democracy to serve as a model for the region. To do so, he pledges to strengthen the country’s democratic credentials, reinforce a separation of powers, bolster media and internet freedoms, reduce the 10% electoral threshold, and resolve the Kurdish issue through strengthening the cultural rights of the Kurdish population. Kilicdaroglu’s remarks on democracy were often interrupted with the shouting of slogans and genuine applause by the audience.

Competing for power 

The enthusiasm for democracy itself shows the long way the party has come. Ironically, just a few years ago, CHP voters were the most resistant to the EU-related democratic reforms and freedoms carried out by AK Party government. Interestingly, the AK Party’s ending of the Kemalist supervisory regime pushed CHP towards defending and embracing democratic freedoms and rights.  With no supervisory regime to rely on, CHP has begun to learn how to compete for power in Turkey’s political scene.

Another issue that has received much attention in the election manifesto is the party’s economic programme. By putting economic issues at the heart of its election campaign, CHP hopes to reach out to wider segments of society. Ending poverty, increasing the minimum wage to 1500 TL, providing two additional salaries to the pensioners, introducing a family insurance for the poor, erasing 80% of the credit card debt of citizens and providing cheap housing are only a few to name from the party’s many economic promises. Kilicdaroglu not only promised to address the problems of the country’s 17 million poor, but also tied the reforms to a timeline, something one should note is not at all common in Turkish politics.

The CHP’s economic pledges met with considerable coverage in the media and drew a reaction from government. The ruling AK party accused Kilicdaroglu of populism and making promises it will not be able to keep up. Prime Minister Davutoglu said that they will not resort to a populist election campaign that could wreck the country’s economy. In all fairness, despite the party’s policy makers’ explanations on how to make room for social welfare spending in the budget, the question of whether these promises could be delivered, and if so how, is still a matter of some public confusion. Nonetheless, regardless of the viability of its economic promises, the generation of a considerable amount of discussion around CHP’s economic programme can itself be viewed as success for a party viewed by large segments of society as having no policies to provide other than opposing what government has to offer. CHP is finally beginning to position itself as a political actor which is able to create its own agenda in Turkey’s political environment.

It is no doubt that the election manifesto created social democrat enthusiasm within the ranks. Compared to the 2011 elections, now the party is more vocal about its social democrat identity in its election manifesto. Changes that started at the top after Kilicdaroglu became the leader in 2011, though slowly, appear to have resonated with the bottom. The results of the party’s primary elections on March 29 are also indicative of this.

While social democrat figures were placed in electable positions by the party members, an old establishment was pushed down to the bottom of the lists, where they have no or very little chance of getting elected as MP.  

CHP’s embrace of social democracy also has to do with the People’s Democracy Party’s (HDP) recent ascent on Turkey’s political scene. HDP’s leader Selahattin Demirtas’ successful performance in the last presidential elections in 2014 played an accelerating role in CHP’s leaning towards the left of centre politics.

CHP’s attempts to open up to central right voters by promoting central right candidates and by forming an alliance with an ultra nationalist party such as the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in the presidential elections in 2014 did not produce any meaningful outcome for the party in terms of increasing its votes. On the other hand, Demirtas’s rise as a serious alternative to the left and his appeal to non-Kurdish segments of society earned him many votes from liberals and CHP voters. This created discussions within the party about the party’s future direction, and strengthened the hand of those in favour of reviving the party’s social democrat roots.

It is yet to be seen how much of this enthusiasm will translate into votes. As a party longing for power for decades, CHP wants to break with its ill omens in the upcoming elections. However, excitement has not turned into concrete support from the public yet. According to the latest polls results, support for CHP hovers between 25 and 26 percent of the total votes.

Whether this is a success is open to dispute. Election results for CHP, in this sense, will be a vote of confidence from the public for the party’s social democrat identity. If CHP fails to increase its votes in the June 7 elections, that will prolong and upset the party’s transformation process, paving the way for nationalist voices to be heard once again. 

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