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Toward a Post-Kemalist CHP?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
“Is this a post-Kemalist or a neo-Kemalist CHP?” That was a good question posed by Taha Özhan, the director of the Ankara-based think tank SETA, on a panel at which we both spoke last week. It was also a question that is not easy to answer.
To begin with, the CHP, of course, is the Turkish acronym for “Republican People’s Party,” Turkey’s oldest political organization. It is the oldest, for as the “party of Atatürk,” it has never been attacked, purged and closed unlike the parties from of all other political traditions. The all-mighty and all-sinister Turkish state, in other words, has been all too sympathetic to the CHP, because the party’s ideology has also been the ideology of the state. Social democratic deviance Those who know something about Turkish political history would object to what I have just said, and they would be partly right. For there was in fact an exception to the traditional alliance between the state and the CHP, which began when the party moved from Kemalism to a mild form of democratic Marxism in the 1970s. This “social democratic deviance,” under the leadership of the late Bülent Ecevit, was the reason why the Kemalist junta of 1980 closed down the CHP as well along all other political parties. But the old CHP was redeemed in the late 1980s. Under the leadership of Deniz Baykal, the party went through a Kemalist restoration, and positioned itself close to the military against the “Islamic threat” supposedly posed by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This neo-Kemalist CHP could not gain anything more than a static 20 percent of Turkish votes, but that was not a big problem. Because the party could already dictate some of its policies via like-minded generals and judges. When Baykal and his team wanted to block the freedom to wear headscarves on campus, for example, all they needed to do was to take the AKP’s reform initiative to the Constitutional Court, which was using its powers to uphold Kemalism and punish its dissenters. However, that authoritarian system has gradually died out in the past few years, as the military lost its political power and the judiciary lost its ideological coherence. So, the main opposition party had a startling discovery: If it wanted political power, it needed to win elections. That is why Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the current leader of the CHP who replaced Baykal about a year ago, was the right man at the right time. Like Ecevit of the 1970s, he was a “man of the people.” He had made a name for himself not for being a zealous enemy of the headscarf, but a meticulous critique of what he saw as corruption in the AKP. No wonder Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership indeed began a new era in the CHP, which is becoming more and more apparent. The party is speaking in a much more liberal language when it comes to key issues such as Kurdish rights. (No wonder Kılıçdaroğlu was able to speak to a large audience in Diyarbakır on Tuesday.) This new CHP is speaking about its projects, rather than simply bashing those of the AKP’s. It is even trying to be, as political scientist Ayşen Uysal told daily Taraf, a “catch-all party” which tries to maximize its votes. Reasons to suspect There are, of course, reasons to be skeptical about the depth and sincerity of this change. First of all, the very way that Kılıçdaroğlu replaced Baykal, through a sex-tape plot that ended the latter’s career overnight, is a shadowy point. Many people look at that unusual genesis of Kılıçdaroğlu, and suspect that his leadership might be a “design” by the Kemalist “deep state.” They might well be right. Second, the “new CHP” has not appeared to give us a good explanation of its transformation from orthodox Kemalism to something like social democracy. The two ideologies are hardly compatible, and that’s why Ecevit’s reforms in the CHP of the 1970s was coupled with a critique of Kemalism. Neither Kılıçdaroğlu nor his team present us such a compelling explanation for the “change” they claim to have realized in their party’s ideology. Third, there are elements within this “new CHP” who represent the most radical form of orthodox Kemalism, such as the jailed suspects of the Ergenekon case, some of which have been nominated as candidates for Parliament. That gives credibility to those, like Özhan of SETA, who argue that what we are seeing is just a refurbished “neo-Kemalism,” rather than a true “post-Kemalism.” Yet still, I am willing to be lenient to Kılıçdaroğlu. As a total outsider who has never been a great fan of the CHP, I welcome the changes in the party’s rhetoric, and hope for only more. It is possible that some of the “catch-all” messages of today might disappear after the elections, but as far as Kılıçdaroğlu is in his seat, he can’t retreat from some of the liberal positions he has taken lately on political issues. Let us also not forget that the AKP’s transformation from Islamism to post-Islamism, too, began with necessity and proceeded erratically. Why not give the CHP a similar chance?
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