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Social Democratic Party for Some Other Time: The New Era in CHP

There has been a change in leadership in the Republican People’s Party (CHP), marking the end of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s era. Özgür Özel has become the Chairman of the CHP. Regardless of the content, a leadership change within a political party through internal procedures is a positive development. Such an event would be impossible, for example, in the AKP or MHP. This situation should certainly be appreciated.

On the other hand, alongside this formal assessment, it is necessary to evaluate the content as well.

How will this leadership change affect the CHP? Can we expect a change in the party’s direction? Will the party shift further to the left? Should we anticipate a change in the CHP’s ideology? Will this change bring the party closer to a social democratic line or a nationalist orientation? Could there be a change in the role the CHP plays within the system? How will its relationships with the HDP and the Kurdish Political Movement be affected? Which direction will its relationships with other political parties take? What kind of strategy will be pursued in the upcoming local elections? What will be the dynamic of the relationship between influential figures like Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş with Özgür Özel? Is this a temporary leadership change, or will it be a permanent leadership? Can the CHP in this new era persuade the public as the main opposition party and strive for power?

The CHP is not an ordinary party; it is the main opposition and the founding party of the Turkish Republic. Therefore, answering the above questions is not only necessary to better understand the CHP but also crucial for Turkey’s political future in the coming years.

First and foremost, it should be noted that the biggest dispute within the CHP is related to its direction. The CHP is an eclectic party with various groups from different traditions prioritizing different objectives. We cannot speak of a monolithic, uniform party. While this might be a common situation in many other left-wing parties, the groups within the CHP cannot be understood merely as fractions. The party has two different engines. One is trying to make the party more social democratic, while the other is attempting to return it to its factory settings. These two dynamics are not compatible. Social democratic and nationalist groups are in latent and sometimes open conflict with each other. The central question is, who will be the winner of this major dispute, and this question must be answered first.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, according to CHP standards, was a social democratic leader. He attempted to reformulate the CHP according to Turkey’s socio-political landscape of the 2000s. He succeeded in softening the rigid secularism doctrine, chose the rational path of collaboration with parties from different backgrounds due to the presidential system’s requirements, and paved the way for winning the Istanbul and Ankara metropolitan municipalities. He collaborated with the Kurdish political movement and tried to transform the CHP into a forward-looking party.

However, the problem lies in the fact that within the CHP, two disconnected groups, the minority of social democrats and the numerically predominant nationalists, continued to exist parallel to each other. Nationalists did not appreciate Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempts to steer the party to the left, to critically approach the past, and to soften Atatürkism. They perceived Kılıçdaroğlu’s direction as a weakness. They advocated for a return to the factory settings of the party and did not soften their attitudes regarding returning to the past and following the previously trodden path. Consequently, the CHP constantly appeared divided, pulling in two different directions and unable to make progress.

Especially during election periods, this duality had a negative impact on election strategies, creating a conflicted image. It pushed Kılıçdaroğlu toward a nationalist stance in the second round of the 2023 presidential elections and built their strategy around winning the support of nationalist segments. This plan did not work. What was needed was a consistent social democratic program built on more democratic discourse. There was a need for a program that would address the demands of the Kurds, reject the regime’s discourse, and pave the way for democratization. Kılıçdaroğlu couldn’t resist, maybe thinking that this tactic would work. I don’t know. However, it’s not possible to say that what was done was right when considering the election results.

The CHP was an instrument for establishing a nation-state in the last remaining part of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. Kemalism was a local ideology that responded to the conditions of the time. Producing a universal ideology from Kemalism and using it as a permanent ideological template that would transcend eras was impossible. The CHP was trapped under this legacy. It couldn’t transform, nor could it be transformed. After all attempts at reformulation, the result was a truncated and inadequate, eclectic party. It was impossible for a modern, European-style social democrat or democratic socialist transformation to occur. The stubbornness of using Kemalist legacy as a universal and timeless standard made evolution impossible.

Thus, the CHP never had the intellectual flexibility to generate solutions for its existing structural problems. For example, it couldn’t break free from the ethnocentric definition of Turkish superiority. They constantly insisted that the slogan “how happy is he who says ‘I am a Turk'” was sufficient for a civil identity, but they remained cold towards transitioning to a modern civil identity that would satisfy Kurds and other ethnic groups, referencing the geography. They continued to view everyone assimilating under Turkish ethnicity as the only solution. Similarly, instead of embracing a secularism that maintains equal distance from all religions, they advocated for a state-controlled, secular, Hanafi-Sunni Turkish citizen ideal and persisted in being disconnected from the people. Kılıçdaroğlu’s inability to address such issues was due to the power of the status quo within the party.

Examples could be multiplied. Özgür Özel is a personality who completely opposes what Kılıçdaroğlu advocated for or tried to achieve. Even when Kılıçdaroğlu’s efforts fell short, the return of the CHP to the influence of the nationalist wing under Özgür Özel’s leadership and the complete takeover of the party by the left-nationalist group in favor of returning to factory settings will, I believe, deal a lasting blow to the CHP’s social democratization adventure. An approach that idealizes the deep state, nationalism, and the 1930s and 40s, summarized as “stopping the counter-revolution,” will prevail in the party. The remaining social democrats in the party will, in the future, partially turn to the HDP, other left-wing parties, or opt out of politics.

I have always argued that the CHP can never become a social democratic party, and that Turkey needs a new social democratic party starting from scratch. I wish I were proven wrong. But the situation is clear. The CHP is stuck between a strange interpretation of secularism that is based on 1930s racially oriented Turkish superiority and the Sunni-Hanafi-Turkish Islam defined and controlled by the state. It is impossible to build a modern social democratic party on this ideological and historical baggage.

Regardless of how the relationships evolve between Özgür Özel and other heavyweights, such as Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, these weaknesses will persist. Under these conditions, a party oriented towards cooperation and transformation will not emerge. Due to the dominance of the nationalist mainstream, deep-state reflexes will become even more pronounced. It does not seem likely that such a party will contribute to Turkey’s normalization, let alone manage this normalization effectively.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.

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