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Will Turkey’s centre-left dare to reform itself?

The problem is that the Republican People's Party (Turkey's centre-left main political party) remains torn between the supporters of a European-style social democracy and those of a die-hard Kemalism. 

Arnaud Castaignet
28 August 2014

As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdogan just became the first elected President of the Turkish Republic. The defeat of the Republican People's Party (CHP)'s presidential nominee, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, jointly nominated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), shows the opposition that denouncing Erdogan's authoritarianism cannot be enough to win an election by direct universal suffrage.

Indeed, at this time, Turkey's centre-left is unable to offer a credible alternative to the "illiberal democracy" currently being built by Turkey’s longest- ruling prime minister.

A few weeks ago in a speech in Tusnad (Romania), Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban  declared that the nations whose systems are “capable of making us competitive” in the global economy “are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies". Orban accused liberal democracies of being unable to protect “family and national interest” and explained his ambition to abandon liberal democracy in favor of an illiberal democracy, citing Russia and Turkey as examples.

"Illiberal democracy" refers to Fareed Zakaria's thesis describing regimes that mix elections and authoritarianism. Indeed, some democratic governments, often popular, are using their mandates to erode individual rights, the separation of powers and the rule of law. Most of them are based on nationalism, crony capitalism and government domination of the media.

Thus, after over a decade where the United States and Europe have viewed Turkey as a liberal model for other Muslim-majority nations, the country is now, according to Hungary's Prime Minister, to be regarded as an example of a successful illiberal state like Russia or China. Free elections are organized but their fairness is to be questioned. Indeed, the OSCE observers have said that the Prime Minister’s use of his official position, along with biased media coverage, gave him a distinct advantage over the other candidates. To mention only one of many examples, figures for last month showed that while Mr Erdogan received 533 minutes of airtime on state television (TRT) to make his pitch, his two rivals Mr. Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtaş (People’s Democracy Party (HDP), got three minutes and 45 seconds respectively.

Relatives of Turkey's new president are involved in corruption probes, institutions such as police and army are purged and his rhetoric of "us and them" ("them" being all the ones that are supposedly plotting against him) goes alongside censorship and self-censorship in the media and attacks on public freedoms. During 2013-2014 protests in Turkey, which started in Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park, this authoritarianism, climate of impunity and meddling in other people's private conduct were denounced.

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Demirtas becomes presidential candidate in Turkey, July, 2014. Yildiz Celik/Demotix. All rights reserved.This demand for public freedoms is shared by a large segment of the Turkish population: youth, union activists, workers with precarious employment, bourgeois, ecologists, social democrats, religious and sexual minorities but also conservatives. It hasn’t found a political voice yet but Demirtas' campaign has begun to champion the rights of the poor and excluded. His positions on political matters promote not just Kurdish rights, but also those of Alevis, Arabs, Christians and others as well. He has publically recognized the Armenian genocide, supported the empowerment and active political participation of women, and stood up for the freedom of religion and secularism. This could lead the way for the centre-left to win the respect and endorsement of a large portion of voters and opinion makers.

The problem is that the Republican People's Party (Turkey's centre-left main political party) remains torn between the supporters of a European-style social democracy and those of a die-hard Kemalism. As Kemal Dervis, former minister of economic affairs of Turkey, said, "the CHP can be proud that it founded the republic, gave Turkish women the vote before many European countries did, upheld the principles of the secular state, signed an association agreement with Europe in 1963 and gave workers their social rights" but "there can be no room for ethnic chauvinism." Turkey's opposition must be seen to go much more on the offensive in standing for the rule of law, liberal values and public freedoms. Furthermore, the CHP is still marked by its association with Turkey as a one-party state and moreover that party’s name is behind some atrocities of that era such as the massive killings that took place in Dersim between 1937 and 1938.

The CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has implemented changes in the party's ideology to embrace all the various social layers of Turkey but as a result, a group of dissidents is now calling for his resignation. As Özgur Korkmaz notes, one of those critics is Birgül Ayman Güler, “the most vocal CHP member to speak out against the ongoing government-led Kurdish peace process". In addition, when CHP decided to pick a joint presidential candidate, it went to the nationalist party MHP for cooperation, which regularly accuses Erdogan's AKP of treason, thanks to this peace process.

Undoubtedly, their choice of candidate - Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a moderate conservative diplomat – suggested that the two parties could evolve and open themselves up to reach conservative votes. But was an unknown political neophyte the right candidate against a winning machine such as Erdogan for an election by direct universal suffrage? Furthermore, significant differences between the CHP, MHP and the candidate’s own personal beliefs led to some noticeable ideological wavering during the campaign.

Turkey's centre-left must find a charismatic leader, but building a coherent political platform is as crucial. CHP needs to rediscover how to talk to the working class and workers with precarious employment that suffer from inequalities in Turkey and explain them how a more equitable and stable form of growth could be achieved. Erdogan often emphasizes on the country's economic growth but given that this growth is not inclusive enough, it could soon become a weakness for him.In Turkey but also in other parts of the world, civil societies call for change as societies become increasingly unequal and politics and business mix in non-transparent ways. Gezi Park's spirit - the yearning for public freedoms, for equality and for the protection of pluralist identities - must guide the evolution of any Turkish left.

Confronted with the model of illiberal democracy currently being implemented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, building a popular, social, liberal and decentralized movement is mandatory. If CHP wants to be part of this movement, it has no choice: it must reform itself.

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