The Weight of Turkey's Kemalist Past: The CHP's Social Democratic Makeover Stalls

August 09, 2015 0 Comments

Though in the wake of Turkey’s latest parliamentary elections the Kurdish-leftist HDP has received far more media attention than the Republican People's Party (CHP) in the Western press, the latter remains by far the largest political opposition force in the country. The CHP has, for most of its history, been defined by the legacy of its founder—Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also the founder of the modern Turkish Republic—and the ideology of state-imposed secularism and Turkish nationalism which he propounded. In recent years, however, the party has been reexamining this heritage under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Chosen to head the party in  2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has since then been attempting to remake the CHP into the social-democratic party it has long proclaimed itself to be. The 2015 elections were the second national electoral test of Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership; though the party certainly seemed to be in need of a new direction prior to his ascension, the results showed that the CHP may now again be politically stalled.

Despite being a self-described social democratic party since its inception, in recent decades the CHP has been principally supported by the secular upper middle class, particularly in the less religious western parts of the country.[1] The party’s appeal to the working class – the traditional base of social democratic parties – has, by contrast, been extremely limited. In large part, this is because in recent years the party has focused on promoting secularism and blind opposition to the ruling AKP rather than developing a genuine social democratic critique of Turkey’s government or economy.[2]

When Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected as party head in 2010, he immediately began a makeover of the party’s personnel and policy proposals with the aim of forging a genuine social democratic movement and attaining greater working class appeal. To that end, he helped maneuver much of the party’s old guard out of their positions in the party’s governing body and replaced them with younger officials who were more connected to civil society than their predecessors. A number of these appointees were labor union officials, but in a sign of possible ambivalence about the party’s new direction, they were in fact outnumbered by newcomers with ties to the business world.[3]

The CHP made modest gains in the 2011 national elections, the first to be conducted under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, as well as in the 2014 local elections, though in neither case did it make serious inroads into the AKP’s electoral lead. The relative disappointment of the 2014 elections led the disgruntled Kemalist old guard to mount a challenge to Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership. Though it failed, the attempt to oust Kılıçdaroğlu received one-third of the vote, indicating that a sizable number of party members were dissatisfied with Kılıçdaroğlu’s direction of the party.[4]

Undaunted, Kılıçdaroğlu vowed to “purge” the old “elitists” from the party, and entered the 2015 campaign attempting to show a new comfort with the religious sector while at the same time emphasizing measures aimed at helping the working class.[5]  With regard to the former, Kılıçdaroğlu largely dropped the party’s former obsession with banning the headscarf from Turkish universities and welcomed several openly religious candidates into the party’s ranks. Similarly, the aggressive secularism the party espoused in the previous decade was replaced by a platform written in conjunction with trade unions and other civil society groups, which included an impressive array of social democratic proposals.[6]

Some of these new proposals mirrored the sort of policies called for by center-left parties across the Western world, such as increasing pensions and the minimum wage, expanding health insurance coverage, and hiring workers currently sub-contracted by the government as permanent staff.[7] In this vein, Kılıçdaroğlu went so far as to promise that under the CHP, there would be no poor people in Turkey within 4 years. Other CHP proposals focused on governance and democratic rights, for instance, lowering Turkey’s notoriously high electoral threshold from 10% to 5%, granting autonomy to universities, decriminalizing the act of insulting the President, and providing official status to Alevi houses of worship. These ideas were topped off by what was surely the CHP’s most original proposal: creating a new “Mega City” in Central Anatolia to be built with $40 billion of public investment through 2035, by which time it would serve as a trade hub and home to 3 million people. Through a somewhat vaguely-explained mechanism, this Mega City is intended to free Turkey from the middle-income trap [A21] and increase the country’s per capita income from $10,000 to $30,000.[8] In addition to these policy proposals, the CHP couched its campaign in the motifs of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, as well as the images of some who were killed in the confrontations, likely hoping that association with the populist demonstrations would help provide the party with a new, more attractive sheen..[9]

Though the party’s shift in focus was dramatic enough to cause several nationalist stalwarts to resign and form splinter parties, it was not enough to provide a real electoral boost for the CHP. [10] The party took just under 25% of the vote, about 1% less than it had received in both the 2014 local elections and the parliamentary national elections in 2011. Regional breakdowns of the results showed that the party largely failed to break out of its pre-existing stronghold in the country’s relatively liberal and wealthy western provinces.

The similarity of the party’s last 3 election results—26%, 26%, and 25%—strongly suggests that it has hit an electoral wall under Kılıçdaroğlu's leadership. The nationalist splinter parties are significant here not because they succeeded in drawing votes away from the CHP—combined, they attracted less than 0.5% of the vote—but because their difficulty in accepting the “new” CHP is a reflection of the difficulty faced by those who are not traditional CHP voters. The CHP's new language of social democracy and promotion of minority candidates and LGBQ rights seems to have been sufficient to alienate, to varying degrees, much of the party’s nationalist old guard. But unfortunately for CHP partisans, non-traditional CHP voters, more religious than the party’s pre-existing constituency, seem to continue to view the party as tainted with the legacy of this increasingly disaffected nationalist elite. It's possible that all the CHP’s social democratic shift needs in order to take hold is more time, or a new, younger leader. Indeed, polls showed that even among CHP voters, the HDP leadership was more popular than their CHP counterparts.[11] If a change at the top is not enough, however, it may simply be that because of its history, the CHP is not an appropriate vehicle for left-wing politics in Turkey. In that case, it remains to be seen whether the newly resurgent HDP is able to take up that mantle instead.

Ryan Peisner

Diwaniyya Contributor