Can Turkish social democrats do what Islamists and Kurds did?

Can Turkish social democrats do what Islamists and Kurds did?

After suffering from a fragmented political life with short-term and inept coalitions, Turkey turned into a “dominant party” country after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, winning consecutive elections under the leadership of Tayyip Erdoğan, who is now the president of the republic.

Islamist/conservative political parties in Turkey had been in opposition or partners in coalition governments for decades under Necmettin Erbakan, without being able to get close to forming a single party government.

How was Erdoğan able to do what Erbakan, the father of political Islam in Turkey, could not?

The key terms for the answer could be “transformation” and “shift in paradigm.”

In 1997, prosecutors opened a court case against Erbakan’s Refah Parti to close it down, right after he lost power following a psychological operation by the military. The reason for the party’s closure, which was later on approved by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), was a speech that Erbakan had delivered in parliament. “We will take power for sure. But it is not yet clear whether it will be a bloody or bloodless process,” he had said.

Apart from the fact that he still considered the factor of blood (promising a fight to his followers) in parliamentary politics, Erbakan had two strong ideological lines that deterred the masses from joining his party.

One of these was the “Just Order,” which was an understanding of the economy resembling Muammar Gaddafi’s Islamic Socialism, rather than modern theories. The other was an open enmity for the “Western club,” which considered the European Union as a “Christian club” or even a “club of Crusaders.”

The first indications of a paradigm shift in Islamist politics in Turkey was demonstrated when Abdullah Gül, one of Erbakan’s deputies (who later became president), put himself forward as a leadership candidate against Erbakan’s will in the 2000 congress of the Fazilet Partisi, the successor of Refah. Gül lost that congress, but it marked the start of a reformist movement within Islamist politics in Turkey, which led to the establishment of the AK Parti in 2001.

The reformists were clear in their new line: They would rely only on the ballot box, nothing else, to achieve power; and they would try to achieve both the economic and democratic principles of the EU. Gül, Erdoğan and Bülent Arınç were three main pillars of the splitters who took power in 2002 and has formed single party governments ever since.

Years later, in 2013, amid talks between the AK Parti government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a political solution to the three-decade-long armed conflict, Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, also came up with the idea of a paradigm shift for the Kurdish-problem focused political parties represented in parliament. Öcalan asked them to abandon the old line (that had also been designed by him), which was to be a mainly Kurdish problem-only party, and could therefore never exceed a 5-6 percent share in the polls. In order to bypass the unfair 10 percent threshold, pro-Kurdish parties have sent “independent” deputies to parliament who would then gather together under the party emblem. While this guaranteed representation at parliament, it also meant halving the actual representation potential (down to 25-30 seats) in the 550-seat Turkish parliament.

Then came the formation of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which also sought to enlist Turkish socialists and liberals. The result was 9.8 percent of the vote for the HDP’s candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, in the 2014 presidential elections.

Now, encouraged by that result, the HDP wants to enter the June 7 elections under its own banner. This decision leaves it at risk of being left out of parliament, but it also carries the potential of at least doubling the party’s seats. That could be bad news for President Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants a new constitution after the elections with extended executive powers for the presidency and fewer checks and balances. HDP Co-Chair Demirtaş upset Erdoğan further on March 17 when he declared that as long as the HDP exists, he will never be able to become the super-president that he wants.

Like the AK Parti, HDP owes its rise to a paradigm shift in its ideology and structure, according to the country’s shifting political and economic conditions.

One of other two opposition parties, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), draws a clear red-line with “Turkish nationalism,” so it might be difficult for it to shift its paradigm.

But for the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), it seems possible. As the oldest political party in Turkey, it has already undergone a few transformations in its history.

CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is actually trying to walk the walk for a conceptual change in his party, which could get it over the psychological threshold of 30 percent and thus dramatically change the whole picture in Turkish politics. But walking the walk also demands an update - a regeneration in ideology and structure as well as in perspective and rhetoric.

The AK Parti and the HDP provide examples.

If Turkish social democrats can do what the AK Parti and the HDP have already done, that would mean an upgrade in Turkish political life toward universal standards.