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Change in CHP (or Not?)

Murat Belge*

The thirty-eighth convention of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) concluded over the weekend. It was expected to conclude, of course; it forms the largest part of the opposition against the ruling AKP government, which is determined to erase the Republic’s history from Turkey’s history. Since the last election, what the opposition will do has been of great importance. I can say it is of “vital importance.” We need to move away from the general atmosphere of despondency created by the election results as soon as possible, and here, the role that CHP will play is extremely important.

Of course, the historical relationship of this party with its “social democrat” identity is also important. Turkey’s oldest political party was born and shaped under certain special conditions, and it continues to carry these influences today. This process has a paradoxical aspect: we can say that CHP, which has taken on the mission of changing Turkey, has played a certain role and contributed to change, but the party itself has not changed much! Indeed, the concept that stands out in this latest convention we are trying to evaluate is “change.” However, this was also the problem in the 1970s; since İnönü declared, “We are on the left of the center,” whether CHP takes steps in this direction (or not) has been an important event in the country’s political life.

In the 1970s, while Bülent Ecevit was trying to steer CHP toward a “social democrat” path, there was a specific definition and recognition of Social Democracy in the world. I don’t think we can say that this continues. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of what “left” means or what it should be has become highly problematic worldwide.

Did CHP face these problems, or did it not? I haven’t seen any significant sign that it did. Moreover, while this process (“the crisis of the left”) was unfolding worldwide, CHP found itself in an atmosphere very close to the atmosphere of its founding years. The political cadre that determines the direction and route of the AKP has a neo-Ottoman inclination. So, CHP had to deal with the enduring problems of Turkish history before the universal problems of Social Democracy.

The victory of those who rallied around the slogan of “change” in the convention is a positive development that can be expected at this stage, in my opinion. While looking at it from my own observations, I must emphasize that I do not want to be unfair to Kılıçdaroğlu, but after this defeat in the last election, I thought a change in leadership was necessary. Therefore, I couldn’t approve of Kılıçdaroğlu’s attitudes coming into this convention. I expected him to relinquish the presidency on his own without putting it to a vote and to do so with a smile. I didn’t find the “dagger” rhetoric justified either. Of course, evaluations made from a certain distance are not the same as those made by those involved in the matter. However, at this stage, I want to emphasize the importance of “being able to stand together” by repeating what many others have said in these days. It is necessary to avoid turning the People’s Party into an arena of conflict between two irreconcilable lines and the negative consequences it would bring. Fortunately, at least for now, such a dominant possibility does not seem to be visible. The players in the game are acting responsibly, and I hope they will continue to do so. Of course, the AKP government will do its best to push the situation there towards division.

The convention was held, and the voting took place. The faction that is seen as “internal opposition” won. However, we do not know what this faction is saying or what it is opposing. We don’t know because there haven’t been many words spoken up to this point. There is no clear criticism – what has been done is more practical (being generous with parliamentary seats, for example). We do not see a substantial debate on principled issues. For example, “CHP has shifted to the right!” If the situation can be explained in such simple terms, you can “shift it to the left,” and it’s fixed! I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, I don’t think these words “left/right” mean the same thing as they used to. For example, when CHP receives votes in all the “wealthy” districts of Istanbul and AKP leads in the poor districts, how will we define left and right? Despite the party’s name being the “People’s” Party, its connection with the people is quite distant. What has been done to repair the relationship is not “social democrat” but rather of a “populist” nature.

Yes, it is an important event that those who set out with the slogan of “change” won at the convention. It is important because it opens up new possibilities, making it possible to reconsider and evaluate everything. However, we cannot truly say what those who say “change” mean by change. Is it just a “change” consisting of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and a few close associates moving away from positions of power within the party? It has been repeatedly said that this is not a “solution,” but has it been fully understood and accepted? There are many signs that suggest otherwise.

We’ll see. We’ll experience it.


*Murat Belge (born 16 March 1943) is a Turkish academic, translator, literary critic, columnist, civil rights activist, and occasional tour guide.

This article was first published in Birikim Magazine and translated into English by Politurco.

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