No free lunch at main opposition CHP
“As always” my friend Zeynep said on the phone, tired but in an incredibly excited voice, “there is a bit of chaos here at the [main opposition Republican People’s Party] CHP’s final rally in Istanbul. But I have never seen anything like this before. I am so happy for our colleagues and our country.” She was entering Maltepe Park’s rally ground as the final hours of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s long “March for Justice” took place.
Let us be fair. The CHP’s conventions were always chaotic. From the nametags to seating arrangements, from speech orders to lists, it was always problematic. The press would be sweating as though in a sauna, there would be very little food or drinks, yet people would still continue to fight for a seat in the party assembly. After this long march, even the conventions would have to change. Kılıçdaroğlu singlehandedly taught the party heavyweights that there will be no free lunch anymore and even the poshest municipalities in Istanbul like Şişli and Beşiktaş or even the Aegean district of Bodrum have to contribute to the efforts. One major lesson learned from this “March for Justice” is the discipline the CHP’s local chapters lacked for years. Kadir Gökmen Öğüt, a member of the party assembly, expressed how important the march was for them. “Our chapters did not know each other, they learned how to act like one, and we did not know how to deal with the police or the gendarmerie. This long march taught us how to deal with the state,” he said on private broadcaster Halk TV.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s authority and his managing techniques have been questioned even by the smallest local CHP chapters’ chairs before. Walk into a small town in the provinces of Antalya, Bursa or Çanakkale, and you would meet a CHP village head who would start complaining about Kılıçdaroğlu instantly. For them, he was not tough enough. He would not shout loud enough, he would not give the final blow to the enemy. But then, the former chair of the Social Security Administration made the wildest decision he could ever make.
As a village boy from Dersim, he began walking, changing the party like no other. From today on, the comparison to former leaders of the social democratic movements like Bülent Ecevit and Deniz Baykal are pointless. The CHP chair took a personal gamble and it paid off well. So where to go now?
The CHP has to be realistic. Its voter base is still 25 percent. This “March for Justice” may excite the masses and change the headlines but it will not change the voting decision overnight. Among the hundreds of thousands who filled the Maltepe Square, there are also potential voters of a center-right and nationalist party that Meral Akşener and Ümit Özdağ are set to launch in fall. Can these two movements be natural partners? Can the CHP become something bigger than its classical party line? It is still too early to predict.
But one thing is certain. The party has shown that it has the capacity and intention to walk behind a good leadership and his deputies. The CHP has shown that it can make peace with the police and security officials and would not let fringe groups take the march hostage. Now it has to show the masses that it can speak their language alongside walking the hundreds of miles for justice. The grandsons and daughters of old and pious Ecevit-voters can come home after all, but they need to know what for.
Kılıçdaroğlu changed the language and chemistry of the CHP, and this means everything in politics. This, in fact, may be the beginning of that long walk home.