PHOTO: Turkey main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu at the Democracy and Martyrs rally, August 7, 2016

Daniel Round writes for EA:

It is now six weeks since a section of the military tried to overthrow Turkey’s government — a seismic event that has precipitated a radical, ongoing restructuring of key state institutions.

The purge began as soon as the mutiny was suppressed on July 16 and has gathered pace ever since, with more than 80,000 state employees arrested or suspended, including over 3,000 from the army. Many vacated positions in the military hierarchy have already been filled by formerly-disgraced generals who were locked up by Gülenist judges during the Balyoz and Ergenekon proceedings of recent years.

The judiciary, police, media outlets, and key educational institutions have also been thoroughly purged over the last few weeks. The extent of the crackdown is so great that 38,000 Turkish prisoners will be conditionally released to make room for those arrested for alleged connections to the attempted coup and US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has ramped up the rhetoric, repeatedly calling for Gülen’s extradition from the US and even linking the clandestine “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation” (FETÖ) with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Given these sweeping measures and Erdoğan’s continuing attempts to centralize and consolidate power, the opposition parties would ideally all have significant roles to play in scrutinizing decisions and holding the government to account. The burden is heaviest though for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Not only is CHP the second-largest party in the Turkish parliament, it is also the only opposition party in any position to challenge Erdoğan — the hard-right (and unusually cooperative) Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has uncritically signed up to the government’s post-coup plans, while the pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been frozen out of the political process for months. However, CHP faces serious strategic problems that have for years hindered its efforts to lead an effective, coherent opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Over the course of two general elections last year, these strategic issues came sharply into focus. In June’s election AKP lost 9% of their vote share, a loss that seemed to threaten its single-party rule. However, CHP was not able to capitalize on AKP’s decline, with its share of the vote down 1% from the 2011 ballot at 25%. In November’s rerun and after months of instability, many analysts expected CHP to edge closer to 30%, but the party barely increased its share, instead hovering just over 25%.

Seemingly unable to move significantly past one-quarter of the vote at general elections, CHP faces serious challenges from multiple directions. The reasons for the party’s stagnation are basically twofold: (1) an inability to make major inroads with socially conservative AKP voters; and (2) in an increasingly polarised country, challenges from the radical left and radical right in the form of HDP and MHP respectively.

With these external challenges growing and a divergence within CHP between its traditional, Kemalist wing and its social democratic wing, the tactic of leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been to triangulate policy and sentiment. Triangulation has been effective in juggling left and right, securing CHP’s short-term relevance and unity, but ineffective at addressing the party’s long-term strategic challenges and ideological contradictions.

Politics Beyond a Rally

This dynamic has very much been on display since the coup attempt, and was notable at the huge “Democracy and Martyrs” rally in Yenikapı, Istanbul on Sunday, August 7. At the rally, AKP, MHP and CHP united to condemn the coup attempt. Millions attended the rally, making it one of the largest gatherings in modern Turkey. It was also the first joint-rally by major Turkish parties since the war in Cyprus in 1974.

For the governing AKP, the meeting was a welcome show of unity in support of the government’s anti-Gülenist purge. For the far-right MHP, it signaled an upturn in the type of belligerent nationalism upon which it thrives. For the uninvited HDP, it was simply further confirmation that the forces of the Turkish state weigh heavily against them and their constituents.


For CHP the picture was less clear, with the rally seeming to encapsulate its strategic contradictions. For a number of days, it was up in the air as to whether Kılıçdaroğlu would even participate, with senior CHP figures likely concerned that the rally would be used to buttress the government’s position and legitimize Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. On the other hand, to not attend a rally of such significance and symbolism would have diminished CHP’s legitimacy and visibility as a player in post-coup Turkey. It would also have robbed Kılıçdaroğlu of the opportunity to make the CHP case to the nation, abandoning the “pro-democracy” narrative to the political right at a time of rightwards drift. After some time clearly weighing up the pros and cons Kılıçdaroğlu accepted the invitation to speak, but, in his triangulation of sentiment, lamented that HDP had not been invited given that its leaders had also strongly opposed the coup attempt as it was underway.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech was sandwiched between those of beleaguered MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. His address was certainly the most striking — while he stuck to the nationalist rhetoric and general, bellicose tone of the event, he diverged from the other two party leaders in promoting CHP’s very own “twelve precepts” for national unity.

Some of the precepts were little more than standard platitudes about the greatness of democracy and secularism, the need for solidarity among the Turkish people, and the need to analyse events more clearly. However, other points hinted at serious criticism of the government. Kılıçdaroğlu stated that politics should be kept out of mosques, courthouses and barracks, in a clear reference to AKP’s politicization of all three during its 14 years in government. He said that republican values should be upheld and that the parliamentary system should be strengthened at a time when Erdoğan, for whom Turkey’s pre-republican Ottoman past is a central reference point, wishes to move to an executive Presidency. He also spoke of the freedom of the media and press, not long after the arrest of journalist and human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, and just a week before the closure of pro-Kurdish rights newspaper Özgür Gündem for spreading alleged “PKK propaganda”.

While Kılıçdaroğlu had been critical since the coup — warning, for example, against “witch-hunts” — some observers were surprised at the bold way in which he challenged the government in the presence of the President and Prime Minister. Still, his was a limited show of opposition. Although Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech contrasted sharply with Bahçeli’s basically uncritical support for the government, everything he said fell well within the parameters of debate that are acceptable to AKP. For Erdoğan, the trade-off of a little bit of public criticism in return for the additional legitimacy that CHP provided at the rally was more than worthwhile, helping to bolster support for his restructuring of the state across traditional divisions of class and geography.

For all its differences with AKP, CHP remains well within the broad umbrella of Turkish nationalism. The excluded HDP does not — its criticisms, therefore, could not have been contained on such a platform at a time of escalating conflict in the Kurdish-majority south-east.

Navigating the Shift to the Right

AKP and MHP are now confidently converging around reactionary themes and authoritarian policies, such as reinstating the death penalty. At mass anti-coup meetings in public squares, the hand signs of AKP’s r4bia and MHP’s wolf have been seen side-by-side. Such convergence represents the assertive culmination of thirty years of Turkish-Islamic synthesis, ironically precipitated by the coup of 1980. Meanwhile, CHP dithers over its direction. Torn between its history as the party of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and its recent, complicated shift towards European-style social democracy, CHP has struggled to properly define what it stands for and how best to communicate its opposition to AKP.

With the coup attempt triggering a rapid realignment in Turkish politics and society, CHP may now find it even more difficult to navigate the political landscape coherently. Although Kılıçdaroğlu managed to successfully stake out a position of critical support for the government’s national unity project, the longer he delays seriously confronting the strategic issues that his party faces, the longer he delays building an effective opposition that can properly challenge AKP. CHP are playing catch-up from a position of weakness, and are doing so on AKP’s terms.

In Europe, analysts speak of “PASOKification” — the rapid decline of establishment centrerleft parties, beset at a time of crisis by associations with failed political and economic orthodoxies. CHP is unlikely to fully PASOKify. The party’s coastal base and solid support among the educated, secular middle classes is unwavering and has seen their vote hold up. For a great many Turks, the association of CHP with Atatürk is reason enough to identify with the party. However, a partial PASOKification is a possibility, and there is no reason why a sizable portion of their 25% voter share cannot be hacked off from both the left and the right if things continue as they are.

Another sign of this vulnerability came with the divisive issue of parliamentary immunity earlier this year. From the outset, AKP and MHP were for lifting immunity while HDP were against, saying it would be used to target and criminalize their lawmakers. CHP dithered, with its old guard in favor of lifting immunity and centre-left members generally against. Eventually, CHP linked up with AKP and MHP to vote to remove immunity, but later some of its deputies petitioned the Constitutional Court to annul the law. People knew where the other three parties stood, but CHP seemed weak, divided and indecisive, and ended up pleasing nobody.

Kılıçdaroğlu is to be credited for moving CHP away from the worst elements of the rigidity and chauvinism that it was associated with under previous leader Deniz Baykal (1992-2010). His interpretation of laicité, for example, is less restrictive, updated for a country that is now more at ease with its Islamic heritage than in the 1990s. However, he has failed to move the party significantly beyond its old, essentializing Kemalist vision of the Turkish state and Turkish identity. While the leadership does not want to allow AKP and MHP to dominate the unity narrative and so continues to compete with them on nationalist terrain, those on the centre-left of the party understand that in the long-run CHP needs to move further away from its old dogmas in order to appeal to a wider, more diverse cross-section of Turkish society.

Although the flags are now waving as a default response to an anti-democratic coup attempt, it is a somewhat deceptive picture. While a form of right-wing nationalism is well and truly on the rise, Turks are now generally more comfortable with multiple layers of identity — ethnic, religious, linguistic, and political — than at any time in the Republic’s history. HDP has fully embraced that pluralism of identity and has benefited from doing so, appealing beyond its core support at the 2015 elections. So too did AKP in its early days, albeit to a lesser extent, before it became overly reliant on populist majoritarianism.

There is room for CHP to confront its history of ethno-centricism while maintaining much of its current policy platform, and they have made a start. Last year, for instance, there was the hugely symbolic election of a CHP deputy of Romani heritage. Meanwhile, conversations have opened up within the party itself and in the country about the dark side of CHP’s role in Turkish history — for example, a former CHP provincial chairman recently said that his party had been “fascist” during the single-party period of the early Republic (1923-45). As the state is reconstructed, the party has an opportunity to take these conversations further and reconstruct itself accordingly so that it can openly and confidently face the future.

Can CHP Break Free?

At this time of flux, CHP’s dilemma seems to be whether it continues an uneasy, informal alliance of nationalist unity with AKP and MHP, or redefines itself as a properly social democratic party that is happier talking to (and building bridges with) HDP on the basis of pluralism and human rights. AKP’s electoral and ideological dominance in Anatolia can only be broken by an alliance between the liberal Western coast and the Kurdish south-east, areas that vote CHP and HDP respectively.

If CHP is to provide serious opposition to a government that is riding roughshod over rights and freedoms and needs challenging now more than ever, their social democratic members will have to make the following case: (1) the party needs to be brave and break free from the oppressive, nationalist comfort zone that they currently inhabit with AKP and MHP; (2) it needs to make a decisive intellectual break from its past; and (3) it should reorient itself towards HDP and other genuinely progressive forces in Turkish society, such as the trade unions and social movements, to build a progressive alliance that can take on the AKP-MHP axis.

It will be difficult for those on the center-left of CHP to decisively shift the party in the manner outlined above. The old guard still holds sway, and in the past talk of reorienting the party and teaming up with HDP in the Grand National Assembly has led to significant backlash, with ludicrous accusations of cosying up to the PKK (“ChPkk”). Without a show of leadership beyond Kılıçdaroğlu’s triangulation and tactical maneuvers to foster unity, tensions between the two competing CHP visions will continue — as will its hamstrung opposition.