Challenging ‘change’ within the CHP

Challenging ‘change’ within the CHP

Sinan Ciddi
The shocking statement by Republican People’s Party (CHP) İzmir deputy Birgül Ayman Güler on Jan. 24 that “the Turkish and Kurdish nations cannot be considered on the same level,” has strengthened the hand of CHP critics and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Regardless of what she meant by the term “nation,” her public outburst undermines the leadership of the party leadership and is indicative of the existence of conflicting factions that continue to reside within the founding party of the republic. Since the ascendency of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to the chairmanship (May 2010), the new leader has made a pronounced effort to distinguish the party from its recent authoritarian and exclusionary past under Deniz Baykal’s leadership. Its slogan of “CHP for Everyone!” a motto promulgated just prior to the 2011 elections, and representative of the party’s intention to be an inclusive and mass party, has suffered a deep setback.

This is especially true, since Kılıçdaroğlu recently pledged a “new line of credit” to the AKP, all in an effort to lend a constructive hand to the government’s negotiations to reach a peace deal with the separatist PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and put an end to the Kurdish conflict. Already suspicious of the CHP’s multicultural credentials, and as can be observed from the party’s very low vote share in the country’s southeastern provinces, Kurdish citizens will continue to be skeptical that the CHP can ever “change” for real.

The one distinguishing hallmark of the Kılıçdaroğlu chairmanship has been to distance the party from relying on “veto players” to conduct political opposition. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, Baykal used less than democratic means to oppose the legislative agenda of the AKP. This was visible in the tacit support the CHP gave to the closure case brought against the AKP in 2007; support for the military’s e-memorandum issued in 2007 which criticized the AKP; and repetitive petitioning of the Constitutional Court (sometimes via then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer) to annul AKP-passed legislation.

Since replacing Baykal in 2010, Kılıçdaroğlu and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to distance the party from such political jingoism. Having revamped the party’s political program and bylaws, the party instigated the use of primary elections for parliamentary candidate selection in many provinces – a practice that is virtually unheard of in Turkey.

Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu has come out in favor of discussing many subjects considered taboo by the CHP including headscarf reform and minority rights. The outburst by Güler is not representative of the party’s intransigence and unwillingness to change as a whole, but the continuity of uncompromising factions which oppose Kılıçdaroğlu’s agenda. The chairman continues to enjoy a considerable amount of support, both within the party and by CHP enthusiasts and this is not likely to change in the short term. The real question, however, is what to do about individuals who do not toe the party line. The answer may be a short “nothing,” as the CHP is the “party of conventions” and constantly bickering “factions;” they are endemic and part of the party’s long history.

In any case, while the party leadership may not like to hear outbursts from individual members, it may very well have to become accustomed to it: The one downside of candidate selection to any party position, be it deputy or delegate, by means of primary elections, is that they are likely to result in the appearance of more independently minded persons who may not necessarily stay on message as decreed by the leadership.

Sinan Ciddi is the executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University