‘No need to move to the right, but CHP needs self-confidence’

‘No need to move to the right, but CHP needs self-confidence’

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‘No need to move to the right, but CHP needs self-confidence’ The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) current stance on secularism and religion contains nothing that might upset the pious, according to Altan Öymen, a journalist and former leader of the party. 

There is no need to move to the right following criticisms on the matter toward the party. What the CHP needs is to have more confidence in itself, according to Öymen, a veteran journalist and politician.

What do you think about the outcome of the convention?

The convention took place in a normal way. As there weren’t enough signatures for other candidates, [party leader] Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu won the vote of confidence. This means the CHP will continue with him. One-third of those elected to the party assembly were not from Kılıçdaroğlu’s list; so if there is an opposition in the CHP, that means that one-third is from the representatives of that opposition. And that in turn means there will be a party assembly with more voices.

Did Kılıçdaroğlu get the vote of confidence because party members are happy with him or does it mean they could not find an alternative?

There were at least three candidates whose names were being circulated, so if there had been big discontent with him, at least one of them could have found a sufficient number of signatures to participate in the elections.

But how do you read the fact that a third of the names in Kılıçdaroğlu’s list was not chosen by him?

An open list is a very democratic practice. In the past, there used to be the practice of the bloc list [a practice where instead of individual names, members vote for a single list prepared by the leader]; in the process of the CHP’s democratization, the open list has become the fundamental practice. This is something you cannot find in other parties. Similarly, primaries were held for the nomination of candidates for the parliament. All this shows the CHP is the most democratic party in Turkey.

But one cannot claim that the November election results were satisfactory for the CHP. It is hard to understand, especially for Western leaders, how a party leader who did not bring their party to power or increase their votes can get a vote of confidence.

Two things: first the 25 percent vote that the CHP got is not that different from the vote ratio that other social democratic parties are getting in foreign countries. Look at the German Social Democrats, for instance. This is more or less the vote ratio social democratic parties get in Turkey during certain periods. But obviously there are also circumstances when this ratio can rise rapidly.

The second is the 10 percent threshold. This pushes people to think “what can I do so that my vote is not wasted?” In the June 7 elections, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered the race for the first time as a party. If the HDP had not passed the threshold, the votes would have gone to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), so many used a strategic vote. A similar thing happened in the November elections. This is a fundamental weakness of Turkey’s democracy; the fear, the necessity of making calculations on the part of the citizen makes casting votes anti-democratic.

Would the CHP’s votes have really increased if there were a lower threshold? Some CHP votes could have even gone to smaller parties.

If you look at the June 7 elections, it was obvious that those who had voted for the CHP their whole lives cast votes for the HDP. And we also had to underline the inequality in campaigning that can be seen nowhere in democratic countries. The High Election Board (YSK) saw no need to take measures for campaign equality during the elections. 

The first democratic election law was enacted in 1950. One of the most important tenets of the law was judicial safeguards and the second was campaign equality. Banners, for instance, were measured down to the millimeter in those times. It was the same in radio broadcasting. These fundamental principles were safeguarded until recently. The president, prime minister could not use official vehicles for elections campaigns, for instance.

So are you claiming that the CHP is suffering from the erosion in the democratic nature of the elections?

Yes, the safeguard mechanisms that guaranteed democratic elections have been eroded.

Still, the resignation mechanism we see in Europe is nowhere to be seen in Turkey. Does that mean that party members think Kılıçdaroğlu was successful?

Success or failure is relative. The question that is valid in politics is which is better. This is about the art of possibility. … It seems that Kılıçdaroğlu was found to be better than the rest and that two-thirds of those on his list were found to be better than the rest of the candidates. And Kılıçdaroğlu received most of the votes.

But one can push the limits of what is possible; we are still assuming that CHP has not given up being a party of the masses.

Of course; the party needs to open itself more to the youth, and that aspiration is there, too. There is the 10 percent youth quota and the 33 percent women’s quota, for instance. All these do not exist in other parties. There is an effort although it is not there yet.

Yes, but the CHP has not been able to increase its votes; what should it do to increase its votes?

There are many reasons for that, but first, certain things need to change, like the 10 percent threshold, and then you can start debating whether the party is working well or not. When I was at the helm of the party, one of the things I focused on was to change the party statutes to renovate the party. We worked on issues from membership to how the local party organizations should work. Of course, these reforms need to be done.

One of the criticisms against the CHP is that it lacks clear policy lines. 

Certain lines are there. The target should be modernization, and what needs to be done to reach that target. One should find that going from the abstract to the concrete, as is being done on issues like the EU, the Middle East and the Kurdish issue.

One of the criticisms of the CHP is that the party is looking to lure the votes of the conservative/pious electorate to increase its votes at the risk of creating resentment among its own constituency.

The CHP has always been targeted and accused of extreme secularism. These are baseless accusations. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan starts tirades by saying “we have suffered so much in the past.” It is really not clear what they have suffered from.

The approach to secularism has also evolved within the CHP. A certain understanding has been reached today. Issues like whether a member of parliament can have a headscarf or not is no longer debated, for instance. If one ends up bringing more pious people into the party ranks [to change the party’s image], and if too many of them are brought in so that the balance is upset, then it might not turn out so well. A line needs to be established and that needs to be endorsed by everybody in the party.

Do you mean to say that the CHP needs a clearer stance in terms of the secular/pious dichotomy? Does it need to reconcile with conservative voters?

The CHP is already reconciled with conservative voters. It respects everyone’s conviction and faith, be it Alevis, conservatives, or others. There is no need for anybody to be resentful of the CHP.

But it is widely believed that in the eyes of certain voters, the CHP means being against religion. 

These are rumors. There are continuous claims that have nothing to do with reality. The CHP leadership needs to reach a consensus on how these should be answered and disseminate this answer. There is no reason for the current generations to complain about it. The AKP tells stories about the past but there is no reason to believe them.

So you are claiming that the CHP’s current stance on religion is not one that will irritate pious people?

Correct. The current hesitation is there; should we move a bit more toward the right? I think there is no need for that. The CHP needs to maintain its current line. And when there are certain accusations, it needs to answer them. It should not worry saying, “They don’t find me pious; they are claiming I am against religion.” The CHP should not get the feeling as if it is missing something. The CHP needs to have more confidence in itself. There are reasons for confidence to be shaken; they keep saying, “People are not voting for us.”
But the amount of votes the CHP gets is not little, and it is possible to increase it considerably. 

The CHP is also criticized for not having clear policies on certain issues like the Kurdish issue.

The CHP has a fundamental line and if one is to summarize it; it is modernization: whatever is progressive in the contemporary world, the CHP should target that and realize it in Turkey, too. The approach to the Kurdish issue in the 1920s and the current approach cannot be the same. Today, for instance, we need to take into account EU standards, especially in terms of local governance.

Who is Altan Öymen?

‘No need to move to the right, but CHP needs self-confidence’

Born in 1932, Altan Öymen graduated from Ankara University’s Political Science Faculty. He worked at dailies Ulus, Akşam, Cumhuriyet and Milliyet as a reporter, editor and editor-in-chief and columnist. 

He founded the Anka news agency. 

He prepared documentaries for both domestic and foreign radio and television channels. 

Öymen also worked as press attaché in Germany.

His political career started in 1961 with his membership in a newly formed assembly after a military coup. 

He served as member of a parliament and as a minister. He was also active in party politics. He became Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader in 1999 for a period of 15 months, but that was his last position in politics, after which he resumed journalism.

The author of several book, Öymen currently writes for web portal Radikal, which has been publishing his columns since 2000.