[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had its “extraordinary convention” in Ankara last weekend. The crux was the new messages of the party’s new leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and the new people he brought into the party. And, although I found many of Kılıçdaroğlu’s themes unconvincing and uninspiring, I still found it assuring that the CHP is at least trying to change.
Notably, the reasons behind this change are external rather than internal. In other words, it is Turkey’s transformation that took place in the past decade that forced CHP to start to think anew.
The changing landscape
That change can be summarized in a single term: democratization, which manifests itself in the unprecedented power of the elected government. In the old days, elected governments in Turkey would always be hampered, and sometimes even overthrown, by “the state” – in other words, the Kemalist establishment represented by the military and the high judiciary. But the current government, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been powerful enough to survive the attacks from both of these forces and to gradually undermine their dominance. (Whether the AKP is fully democratic-minded is another debate, which is not unimportant, but their right to govern as the elected government is democracy 101.)
This change in the political landscape left the CHP out in the blue. For this Kemalist party used to act as the political arm of the Kemalist establishment. When the AKP passed a law that the CHP did not like, such as the amendment that set the headscarf free in universities, all the latter had to do was to take it to the like-minded Constitutional Court, which happily annulled it. So, the fact that the CHP was always in opposition did not matter much: It was still highly influential thanks to the power of “the state” that it was allied with.
However, from 2008 onwards, having realized that the world has changed, and that the only way to political power is now to win elections, some smarter folks in the CHP had realized that an “opening” was necessary. But Deniz Baykal, who had been chairing the party since 1992, was too much of an obstacle for that. That’s why, the sex scandal tape that ended Baykal’s career overnight last May, came as unforeseen opportunity. Nobody knows who videotaped Baykal’s affair secretly and released it to the media. Nobody knows either whether this was a part of a design for the party’s future. But it worked that way. Baykal’s end became Kılıçdaroğlu’s beginning.
The latter was a rising star in the party, who made a name for himself by public debates focusing on corruption with AKP folks. But he was neither an intellectual nor a visionary. That’s why when he suddenly found himself leader of the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu was caught off guard. He was just too novice to run, let alone transform, such a giant political machine.
We saw Kılıçdaroğlu’s unpreparedness last weekend, too. In his speech at the party convention, he basically promised an over-extended welfare state which will distribute money to all the unprivileged segments in society. To the obvious question – where he would find the resources for such a massive giveaway – he gave a response that made many people laugh: “I will find the resources: my name is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu!”
Shift to the left
Here we see something like the “shift to the left” that Bülent Ecevit accomplished within the CHP in the 1970s. Then, Ecevit had questioned some aspects of Kemalism, promising “a secularism that is respectful to religion,” and appealed to the lower classes rather than the secular urban upper class that the CHP traditionally represented. Thanks to that change, the party came to power in 1977 as a single-party government in free and fair elections for the first time in its then-50-year history.
It is clear that Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to repeat the Ecevit revolution. And it is certain that the CHP will be better for Turkey if it becomes such a left-wing party – symbolized in the Che Guavera-like poster of Kılıçdaroğlu that was held at the convention. A socialist party that plays according to the rules of the democratic game is certainly better than a Kemalist party that tries to limit the extent of democracy.
In that regard, I am supportive of Kılıçdaroğlu, and the change he is trying to realize within CHP. I am more than willing to give him a chance. Just the fact that he is trying to get over the CHP’s age-old Islamophobia is commendable.
But I would also be worried if he ever gets a chance to win an election and come to power. The “economic program” he is promising is a recipe for economic disaster: such populist government spending can bring nothing other than huge budget deficits, which will lead to bankruptcy.
No wonder the populist Ecevit government of 1977-79 did exactly that, dragging the country into a terrible economic crisis during which even butter and sugar were sold on the black market. We certainly don’t need to take that terrible course again.