CHP’s old guard dies hard

CHP’s old guard dies hard

One of the bitter jokes on Turkish social media yesterday was that the best 58th birthday present Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan could have asked for was the congress of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Ankara. The joke had some truth in it; the polarization within the CHP was so visible that it could only please the Prime Minister.

The congress was to amend the party regulations, as promised by its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu when he was elected in 2010, to “bring democracy first to the party” and then to the country. Because he did not attempt to call for a congress, the inner-party opposition called for it first, and he had to make a counter-move by calling for a separate congress (yesterday’s), a day before the opposition one. It is indeed complicated, because what is called in-house opposition is the old guard of the CHP, lead by the former secretary general Önder Sav, who had ruled the party with exactly the same regulations that are considered anti-democratic now. To add a pinch of farce into this political drama, it was Sav who helped Kılıçdaroğlu topple the former chairman Deniz Baykal in 2010, when the latter was hit by a bedroom tape recording, allegedly showing him together with a CHP deputy (and a former private secretary). It is Sav now seeking Baykal’s support against Kılıçdaroğlu. (Another joke on Turkish social media yesterday was that the state run television station TRT gave live coverage to Sav’s press conference – only slightly less than PM Erdoğan’s - something he never enjoyed when he used to rule the CHP).

When a CHP deputy, namely İsa Gök, objected to Kılıçdaroğlu declaring that there were enough delegates to open the congress, he was jostled by other party delegates and pushed out of the hall, to take his place next to Sav during the mentioned press conference. That was actually the scene that prompted the “Birthday present to Erdoğan” jokes.

The old guard opposition claims Kılıçdaroğlu is taking the CHP from its Kemalist core into treacherous waters; as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) is putting more and more pressure on the opposition, using court cases like Ergenekon and Balyoz as leverage. To emphasize their point, they cite Kurdish-origin human rights activist Sezgin Tanrıkulu, or socialist trade union leader Süleyman Çelebi, or center-right young businessman Faik Tunay, who were all invited to the CHP before the 2011 elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu defends himself by saying that the CHP’s status quo was not enough to make it a viable alternative to the government. The party has to expand itself to more diverse parts of society to become a European-style social democratic party.

Sav believes the newcomers will leave the party eventually, and so it will be the old guard’s turn to rule once again. What Kılıçdaroğlu wants by the regulation amendments is to transform the party in such a way that no clique would be able to stay in power forever again. It seems that it will not be an easy task, with the planned congress in autumn getting nearer, at which delegates will vote for the next term’s CHP chairman.