[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
The recent sex scandal that led to the resignation of Deniz Baykal, the leader of the People’s Republican Party, or CHP, was certainly interesting news. But what I have found more interesting is the aftermath of the affair, and particularly the amazing devotion that many CHP folks have shown to their fallen leader.
First, let’s recall who Mr. Baykal is. He certainly is a smart man and an astute politician. Yet you can really not define his political career as success story. He never won an election, and never made his CHP, “the party which founded the Turkish Republic” a truly popular one. With his growing nationalism and fear mongering, he won the distaste of not just liberals but even most social democrats.
So, there was already enough reason to think that perhaps it is time for the 71-year-old Mr. Baykal to retire. The scandal I mentioned came on top of all that. The criminal and unethical nature of that infamous “sex video” was all too evident. But it unavoidably opened the door to questions about Mr. Baykal’s moral character, which unavoidably led to his resignation nine days ago.
Now if all this happened in a Western country, I think most of Mr. Baykal’s fellow party members would respect his decision, pat him on the back, and start to look for a new leadership with a fresh vision. Yet none of that happened in the CHP. Most party members rather flocked around Mr. Baykal. When he announced his resignation, most were shocked and disillusioned. Some people cried. “He is my second father, he is my everything,” a party delegate was telling to cameras with tears in his eyes. “He just cannot leave us like this.”
Others even started a hunger strike in front of Mr. Baykal’s residence in Ankara to invite their dear leader back.
Finally, two days ago, the only promising name around, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came out as a candidate for party leadership. Yet the Central Committee of the party held a meeting and insisted that Baykal should return. One of the members even accused one of the supporters of Kılıçdaroğlu to be a “CIA agent.”
I think this passionate loyalty to Mr. Baykal is something that is worth thinking about. Sociologists actually have a term to define structures based on that sentiment: patrimonialism. This refers to social or political organization in which a “patrimonial” (father-like) leader has the absolute loyalty of obedient subjects. The leader is always praised and followed, and never questioned and criticized. The worth of the members of the group is measured by their loyalty and proximity to the leader, rather than their individual merits.
Patrimonialism is often considered as a pre-modern and even tribal culture, and it has had some of its most rigid forms in the Middle East. This has led some sociologists to presume that Islam created patrimonialism, whereas I would say the latter preceded Islam and just crept into Islamic culture over time. But the presumption that Islam (or any other religion, for that matter) is directly responsible for patrimonialism became quite popular in early 20th century. The result was a fanfare for secularization. Secularize the patrimonial peoples, some gurus argued, and they will be all open societies with free individuals.
Yet history proved otherwise. Secularization brought neither democracy nor liberalism to any Muslim country. It rather brought secular dictatorships, such as that of the Shah, Saddam Hussein, or Hosni Mubarak. Patrimonialism under Islam, in other words, just turned into patrimonialism under secularity and went on.
A small step for the CHP?
The CHP, in my view, is the perfect example of this problem in the Turkish context. Their ultra-secularist ideology promised them that they would be all free and open-minded once religion and tradition is pushed away. But they rather became a collectivist tribe passionately believing in “modern” dogmas and gods. “We expelled the Sultan, and became free,” most CHP folks say proudly when they speak about the genesis of the republic. Little they realize that Mustafa Kemal, the main object of their personality cult, was more omnipotent and authoritarian than any of the latter-day Ottoman Sultans. The veneration they are giving to Baykal these days seem to be a repetition of that leader-worship.
You can say that other parties in Turkey are hardly better. And you would have a point. Erdoğan, as well, is all-powerful in AKP, as Bahçeli is in his MHP. But in the center-right, and in this case the AKP, there is at least a diversity of patrimonial loyalties, as some party members are affiliated with various religious groups and sufi orders, ideological strains, and even identities. (There are lots of Kurdish MPs in the AKP, for example.) The AKP also benefits from its openness to capitalism, which is the real killer of patrimonialism.
That’s why I am not very optimistic about the future of the CHP. Yet still, I am hoping that Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu can take the lead and bring some chance. After all, even a small step for the CHP, “the state party,” will be a big step for the rest of us.