CHP and the US rediscover each other

CHP and the US rediscover each other

CHP and the US rediscover each other

Turkish main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has started his five day contacts in Washington DC on December 1st. AA photo

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu started his five day contacts in Washington DC on Dec. 1. The U.S. capital is the latest stop of the CHP’s diplomatic tour - as an alternative to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s - after contacts in Brussels, Damascus, Beijing, Baghdad and Cairo. This is not something usual in Turkish politics.

This is also the first visit of a CHP leader to the U.S. in 37 years. Then, Bülent Ecevit had survived an assassination attempt by a Greek Cypriot in New York in 1976, in the wake of the Turkish military’s Cyprus intervention in 1974.

In the meantime, the U.S. has changed a lot, Turkey has changed a lot, and the CHP has changed as well. The change in the CHP, as a party that is the same age as the 90-year-old Turkish Republic, has perhaps been rather slower. This has lead to criticism from foreign observers that its opposition is inefficient and fails to offer an alternative to the current Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Therefore, Kılıçdaroğlu’s move to let the opposition voice be heard, especially on Turkey’s foreign policy, is a sign of a new policy line for the CHP, too.

There are three main reasons that have forced the CHP to make such a change: The need to reply to Erdoğan’s 50 percent election victory in 2011 with policies other than the traditional secularist-Kemalist line, the latest turmoil in the Middle East kicked off by the Arab Spring that hit Turkish borders with the Syrian civil war in 2012, and the Gezi Park wave of protests that shook Turkey in the summer of 2013.

“We drew our lessons from the Gezi protests” Kılıçdaroğlu told reporters covering his trip to Washington DC. “It was a release of energy by young people of many walks of life against the pressure of the government on their private lives; a new form of opposition.”

Believing that it was the Gezi protests that triggered interest about the opposition in Turkey abroad, Kılıçdaroğlu says the CHP “received the invitation from the U.S. Congress and think tanks here following Gezi. We have modified a brochure that we prepared for the Socialist International’s Istanbul meeting in November about Gezi, and it will be an important part of our presentations here”.

Asked about Erdoğan’s criticism that CHP is giving a “bad name” to Turkey with its contacts abroad, Kılıçdaroğlu says Erdoğan is confusing their contacts in the EU and the Western world with those made elsewhere. “We did not criticize the Turkish government but told about our own policies, together with Turkey’s, in our contacts in, for example, Damascus, Beijing, and Baghdad” he said. “But Brussels is a different story. Turkey has turned its face to the West for nearly 200 years. We are members of NATO, the Council of Europe, the OECD, and now we want to be a member of the European Union. Erdoğan talks about the EU as a separate entity, whereas we think that it’s a world we want to be a part of. That’s why we criticize the Turkish government in EU contacts. The EU strongly criticizes Turkey in its reports anyway. We do not think Turkey should be a part of it a world with more authoritarianism. We think Erdoğan’s Shanghai membership demand is wrong.”

So, it’s not only Gezi that the CHP delegation here is going to focus on. “The Americans want to understand what the CHP thinks about political issues and we are going to tell them first hand about our foreign, economic, and energy policies, and our line from the Iran nuclear deal to the Geneva talks on Syria,” Kılıçdaroğlu said.

He is actually trying to summarize the transformation of his party from a rather isolationist foreign one with a focus on the duties of citizens to the rights of citizens in domestic politics. Pursuing an anti-American line has been a part of the party up until a few years ago, but Kılıçdaroğlu says this is changing. “We cannot have a policy against any country, let alone the U.S. as the world’s biggest power. And it’s very natural for the U.S. Congress and thinks tanks to decide to listen to the opposition in Turkey,” he said.

It seems that the CHP is rediscovering America, while the U.S. is rediscovering the opposition in Turkey on behalf of the CHP, perhaps thanks to the Gezi protests, which showed that Turkish society is not monolithic.