CHP and the need for a strong opposition in Turkey

CHP and the need for a strong opposition in Turkey

Turkey’s social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will convene a congress on Jan. 16-17 in Ankara.

The congress will mark the first opportunity for the CHP to evaluate the results of the Nov. 1, 2015 election, which the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) won with a clear majority of nearly 50 percent. The CHP could only get half of this number, slightly more than 25 percent, making it the second biggest party in the 550-seat Turkish parliament but marking another disappointment for its loyal voters.

There may be candidates who opt to run against CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the congress. Muharrem İnce, who ran and lost in the most recent congress, is unlikely to repeat his run for the CHP leadership. However, Mustafa Balbay, an MP with a background in journalism, is keen to win the post, while former CHP Deputy Chair Umut Oran is likely to test the waters before putting his own candidacy forward.

Political observers in Ankara do not expect a serious challenge to Kılıçdaroğlu’s position. But this doesn’t mean that the CHP is not going to change or doesn’t need change.

Although it is the oldest party in Turkey, the CHP has been unable to enjoy power for many years. Following sharp fluctuations in the 1990s, the CHP became stuck in the 21-25 percent bracket over successive elections. This has largely been put down to the party line moving away from social democratic principles towards a rather elitist, pro-establishment emphasis. However, the rhetoric has shifted back towards social democratic principles and more street contact since Kılıçdaroğlu took office following the resignation of Deniz Baykal as CHP head in 2010. 

That shift in rhetoric, along with changes in the party’s frontbench, has only led to an increase of 3-4 percentage points. Indeed, the CHP seems to have gotten stuck on 25-26 percent of the vote in the last few elections.

The CHP needs more. Perhaps winning a parliamentary majority – under Turkey’s current circumstances, in which President Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Parti still enjoy the “dominant party” syndrome - might be too much to ask. But reaching the 30 percent threshold might well be possible, according to both party officials and political observers.

Thirty percent is a threshold for a number of reasons. Firstly it is a psychological hurdle, meaning that the party will have won the trust of a third of voters. Secondly, due to the asymmetrical way votes are calculated compared to representation in parliament, winning 30 percent could mean a significant jump in the number of CHP MPs in parliament – a rise of more than 5 percent. Thirdly, although the AK Parti would still be in power if the CHP won 30 percent, it would have less domination over politics and more checks and balances in parliament. Turkey obviously needs a strong opposition in parliament - both to balance the government and to cooperate better when needed, at a time when Turkey is faced with the serious problems of terrorism, diplomatic crises and economic struggles.

In order to achieve a rise in its vote, another change in the CHP’s rhetoric may not be enough. Changes in the organizational structure, methodology, and changes in the party program to better embrace the needs of voters are necessary. Such a move would certainly need to adopt a new outlook on the Kurdish issue and reach out to women voters more.