Kılıçdaroğlu dabbles in shallow populism

Kılıçdaroğlu dabbles in shallow populism

The latest example of how foreign policy has been “instrumentalized” and put in the service of shallow domestic political considerations in Turkey comes from Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

Addressing supporters in parliament on Dec. 21, Kılıçdaroğlu referred to the current talks between Turkey and Israel aimed at normalizing diplomatic ties. Calling on the government he said, “If this agreement goes ahead without the lifting of the Gaza siege then the blood of nine citizens will have spread to their [the government’s] hands. The Palestinian cause is sacred.”

He was talking about the nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists killed by Israeli commandos in 2010 as their aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, was heading to Gaza in an effort to break the Israeli blockade of the besieged enclave. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demanded that Israel apologize for this incident, pay compensation to the families of those it killed and stop blockading Gaza. 

The first condition was met when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama, apologized to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who was prime minister at the time) in 2013. Talks are said to be nearing a conclusion on the compensation issue.

The demand regarding the siege of Gaza, however, remains in the air. It appears, nevertheless, that an intermediary formula that the AKP can sell to its Islamist supporters may be found, like the opening an aid corridor for Turkey to the Gaza strip. 

The bottom line as far as the big picture is concerned though is that general developments in the region are forcing Turkey and Israel to improve ties for the sake of their own interests at a time of serious turbulence and change in the Middle East. 

Overlooking this fact, Kılıçdaroğlu is, in effect, exhorting the government not to normalize ties with Israel unless Ankara’s Gaza demand is fully met. In doing this he is employing jargon that is more customary for the AKP with regard to the Palestinian issue. 

One would think from his words that the CHP has been in line with the government on this topic from the start and is now castigating it for back-peddling. Yet we have rarely seen Kılıçdaroğlu support the government with regards to Ankara’s demands from Israel. 

I personally know from contacts with senior members of the CHP - who include retired diplomats - how critical they were of the way the government handled ties with Israel.

They argued that the deterioration of these ties would reduce Ankara’s potential for playing the role of an impartial mediator or facilitator in regional disputes, and accused the government of being motivated by Islamist/Sunni considerations instead of serving Turkey’s regional interests.

What Kılıçdaroğlu is doing now, in light of all this, is using a sensitive foreign policy issue to score domestic political points. Turks, whether they are religious or irreligious, leftist or rightist, generally sympathize with the Palestinians. This does not explain, however, the cynical manner in which Kılıçdaroğlu is using this issue now.

More to the point, it shows that the CHP really has no coherent and consistent foreign policy approach, which also explains why some of the retired ambassadors in the upper echelons of the party have been marginalized. Clearly their realistic understanding of foreign policy is out of touch with the populist manner in which Kılıçdaroğlu wants to use this sensitive domain in domestic politics. 

But what Kılıçdaroğlu has really achieved in this instance is to show once again why his party remains in the doldrums, perhaps not sinking, but not moving forward either. It is unlikely that Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt at playing the populist card while important issues are at stake will lead the CHP out of the morass it is in.