The danger of secular ghettoization and the CHP congress
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will hold its 34th Congress in Ankara on July 17-18. This will be the third party congress, including emergency ones, since party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected in 2010, when former leader Deniz Baykal resigned following the release of an illegal tape regarding his private life.
Kılıçdaroğlu has been promising to transform the CHP into a modern social democratic party since then, and that is likely to be the message he will deliver in the congress hall today. Answering a question in an interview with daily Hürriyet on Monday, Kılıçdaroğlu said he holds the “stick of patience” in his hand, with regard to that transformation. Fikret Bila of Milliyet has told his readers that he has seen Kılıçdaroğlu’s desk spread with seven books, all on the topic of the contemporary theory and practice of social democracy.
Why is it so difficult to transform the CHP into, or possibly it would be more correct to say back to, a social democratic line, when it was the party that introduced social democracy into Turkish political life in the early 1970s under its late leader Bülent Ecevit?
There are two main reasons for this. The CHP was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the Turkish War of Liberation and also the founding president of the Turkish Republic. During the 1920s and 30s, the young republic was run under a one-party regime, as an ambitious program of development and also Westernization (meaning secularization) program was imposed. Some citizens’ religious and ethnic rights were violated because of that program. That is why Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan lashes out at the CHP’s one-party past whenever he wants to divert public opinion from current affairs.
The second reason is the CHP’s return to its elitist roots following the 1980 military coup, despite its major political shift in the 70s. The CHP was severely crippled by the coup, but because of a rising wave of religious conservatism since the Turgut Özal governments of the early 80s, the CHP felt that it had to defend the secular way of life in Turkey, as the main factor which enabled a multi-party democracy to exist in the country, unlike other countries with largely Muslim populations. And that strong advocacy of the secular way of life ironically pushed the CHP into a political line parallel to that of the military.
That is the line Kılıçdaroğlu wants to break, and his main difficulty is that the secular way of life in Turkey is facing the threat of a kind of ghettoization.
A popular brand of Turkish beer was forced to withdraw its sponsorship of an international rock festival in Istanbul last weekend following a campaign against the use of alcohol, because the festivities took place in a conservative district. It was no problem when the festival was held in districts more open to the world in the past. From the use of alcohol to their outfits, people living a secular lifestyle have begun to feel more comfortable with others like themselves. This results in a kind of voluntary ghettoization of secular people into certain districts of big cities. In the small towns of Anatolia, social pressure can be felt even more heavily.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s job is not a very easy one, in terms of finding a way to be the voice of the secular lifestyle in Turkey, regardless of whether that comes from the center right or left, while shifting back to a European-style social democratic line and doing that with the current, frustrated human resources of the CHP. If he can find a way to do this, then he could be a real alternative to [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan.