This month, members of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) convened at a holiday resort to review the party’s policies and future strategy after their stinging defeat in the September 12th referendum. Most media accounts of the referendum have focused on the ruling Justice and Development Party’s bid for greater governmental control through constitutional amendments. Indeed, the government’s domestic opponents have claimed that by expanding the authority of the President and Parliament in the judicial selection process (both institutions are now controlled by the AKP), it has eviscerated the last bastion of secularism in the country.
One can certainly question the AKP’s democratic intentions in making these changes: the party often seems to advance only those reforms that serve its self-interest and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies belie the party’s reformist credentials. But there’s more to this story than the AKP. The real problem for Turkey, and the reason the AKP has been able to dominate the political landscape in recent years, is the sad state of the Turkish opposition.
For years, the CHP has disgraced its legacy as the party of Ataturk and become little more than the party of “no.” The CHP’s raison d’être has been to resist any AKP-led initiative without offering any effective policies of its own. During a period when Turkey is undergoing significant changes, the CHP’s intransigence renders it out of touch with the people.
It wasn’t always like this. Many Turks long for the CHP of bygone days when the party, headed by Bulent Ecevit, won the 1973 general elections by decrying military interference in politics. As a truly centre-left party, Ecevit’s CHP was similar to the social democracies of Europe – promoting civil liberties and reaching out to workers and peasants to redress social inequalities.
Then came Deniz Baykal. Following the 1980 coup and a complete re-working of the political left, the CHP re-emerged under his leadership in the 1990s, incognizant of the democratic fervour pulsating through Europe. Baykal alienated many secular liberals by emphasizing the CHP’s role as the defender of Turkey’s secular, nationalist identity rather than developing the innovative policies needed in the face of drastic geopolitical changes. Although many within the CHP ranks recognized that Baykal was bad for the party, his iron-clad grip on power made it nearly impossible for anyone to oppose him. It’s no wonder that many assume someone within the CHP released the sex-tape that put an end to Baykal’s career this spring. He was, after all, regarded as one of AKP’s greatest electoral assets.
The rise of the squeaky-clean civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu as party leader in May signalled a new era for the CHP. Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi Kurd born in the eastern province of Tunceli who earned accolades for exposing AKP corruption scandals. With this change in leadership, the CHP seemed well-positioned to revamp its image as a party of the people rather than of just secular elites. Kilicdaroglu quickly set off on the campaign trail to push for a “no” vote in the referendum, proving himself an impressive and thoughtful campaigner.
However, as the referendum results demonstrated, the CHP as a whole still didn’t get it. Despite the optimism surrounding Kilicdaroglu’s ascent, the CHP campaign ultimately focused on vilifying Erdogan and fear-mongering – tired tactics that missed the point. One CHP billboard displayed a woman covered in a chador with the caption, “vote no if you don’t want to be forced to dress like nuns”. But those in support of the referendum were not rejecting secularism; they were rejecting military interference and an infringement of civil liberties. Although the CHP had valid reasons for opposing the reform package, the AKP successfully depicted the “no” campaign as a vote in support of military coups, casting the CHP once again as the defender of the status-quo.
Kilicdaroglu now seems to recognize that the CHP needs a total revamping if it wants to succeed in next year’s elections. Immediately following the vote, he embarked on a three-day trip to Brussels where he sought to ingratiate himself with EU officials and underline CHP’s commitment to EU membership. Back home, Kilicdaroglu has pledged to present a “positive opposition” that will contribute to better governance through compromise and consensus-building, rather than one that “opposes whatever the government proposes for the sake of being an opposition party”. Kilicdaroglu recently met with Erdogan to discuss the drafting of a new constitution. He also reiterated his pledge to seek a constitutional amendment to end the ban on headscarves. In another promising reversal, Kilicdaroglu has said that he will meet with leaders from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in order to stop the bloodshed.
These are all steps in the right direction. But for the CHP to regain legitimacy it must figure out an effective way to translate this new rhetoric into deliverables. This won’t be easy given the resistance among certain segments within the party to change.
The referendum results were a stark reminder that liberal democrats in Turkey lack a viable alternative to the AKP. For too long, the opposition has clung to dated institutions like the courts and the military to check the AKP’s influence, rather than developing a forward-thinking, reformist agenda that could help them win elections. Fortunately, this time, the leadership may have finally gotten the hint.