CHP’s multiple identities and the upcoming snap election
It’s amazing how often the major opposition party CHP has been able to quell the fire it has ignited with an unexpected step back. More than once have they failed to mobilize, channel, and expand the excitement of their supporters; each time they have killed the euphoria in a way that has pushed the constituency into disappointment and desperation.
At the heart of this incompetency is the CHP’s identity crisis, which has been the cause of terrible inertia in the party. Turkey cannot afford to have this stagnant CHP as the major opposition party at this juncture. CHP’s multiple identities, however, which have hitherto been a curse, may very well become the source of a new momentum.
The most recent example of CHP igniting its base only to deflate any hope was, of course, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu shaking hands with Good Parti leader Meral Akşener. In a smart manoeuvre, 15 CHP deputies moved under the Good banner, effectively ending the uncertainty about whether the party would be able to participate in the fast approaching June 24 snap elections. The CHP's constituency applauded and welcomed the surprise move. After all, it is very rare in today’s Turkey to have any say against the AKP government’s wishes and to score a goal against Erdoğan in the way this handshake did. CHP supporters began to become hopeful about the election: maybe, even under these very unfair and rigging-prone conditions, their party could lead the opposition into victory against Erdoğan?
Days later, the excitement had been drowned under speculation about candidates and objections to a proposed Abdullah Gül candidacy, which is off the table as of Friday. What’s worse, supporters ended up disappointed and angry that neither the party or its leadership communicated or clarified the speculation about the candidate.
Maybe that is not so surprising for a party whose leadership walked the 450km between Ankara and Istanbul for justice, creating much enthusiastic support but failing to channel this support into any tangible outcome favoring justice. The CHP also fell short in channeling the anger at the last minute intervention that helped Erdoğan win the April 2017 referendum into a challenge of the results, the momentum of the June 2015 elections into a rapprochement with the HDP, or to make the “Gezi spirit” and the local organisations that sprouted from it into a grassroots opposition movement.
The CHP constituency today includes a wide range of political views that cannot be simply mapped on a traditional left-right spectrum. There is the group of dynamic and progressive CHP supporters for whom voting strategically for HDP is not a big deal. There is the group of secular but traditional supporters for whom nationalism is the most salient dimension and who find themselves torn between CHP and the Good Parti. There are the Kemalists, also jokingly dubbed “Cumhuriyetçi Teyzeler/Republican Aunties,” who are active and engaged with republican values such as nationalism or secularism, but still conservative because their ideal is the Atatürk-era republic.
The CHP leadership often freezes in its tracks because these different groups pull it in different directions or because it fears alienating one or the other. For example, CHP-HDP cooperation after the June 2015 elections would have been be applauded by the progressives but it was a red line not to be crossed for the nationalists. The CHP could not make a move and AKP sabotaged the process to have snap elections in November 2015, offsetting their June setback. The fear of a shrinking constituency keeps the party in inertia, and inertia is bad under the current conditions.
The way out of the inertia is not factionalism, I am in no way suggesting that the CHP should divide into two or more parties. Quite the contrary: being home to such a wide range of political views can be an asset in expanding the opposition bloc and building a wider coalition. The way out is understanding the nature of the diversity within the constituency, acknowledging the diversity and showing active leadership to move the party and the larger opposition forward.
Active leadership is taking well-considered actions rather than defensively reacting to AKP government and its moves. Leadership may mean having some supporters swallow some bitter pills, but always communicating the rationale with them. This party had its constituency vote for a candidate like Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, rally behind Mansur Yavaş for Ankara mayor, and applaud a handshake with Meral Akşener; I tend to think they will be forgiving of bold moves if the outcome is anything but the AKP-dominated status-quo.
It is difficult under the current media controls and repressive political environment to reach their constituency, however. The CHP leadership won’t get much airtime but why not use social media, local assemblies, the Atatürkçü Düşünce Derneği organizations, and their trade union allies to reach them? While the official CHP Twitter account is boring, stagnant, and uninformative, the parody Twitter account for the CHP headquarters cat, Şero, is fun, engaging, and has great interaction with followers. There are even people who pledge to vote for Şero against Erdoğan and it sometimes feels like the support for the cat’s candidacy is not a joke.
This election is existential for both Erdoğan and the AKP: for them, losing is not an option. They have been doing their best towards winning the presidential election through laws and regulations on the electoral process, interference in local governance, gerrymandering, and media consolidation, taking all major news outlets and reporting agencies into pro-government hands, detaining local politicians and parliamentarians from pro-Kurdish HDP, registering Syrians for citizenship in the southeast, continuing the state of emergency rule and even starting an operation into Syria to fan nationalism.
However, the No bloc came very close to winning under very similar non-free and unfair circumstances in April 2017. A smart campaign with collaboration between the grassroots, the party machine, and the party leadership can go a long way in getting out the vote. Partnering with electoral monitoring organisations can deter voting irregularities even if it cannot completely eliminate them.
Erdoğan is most likely going to “win” the presidency and it will be the end of the Turkish political system as we know it. The CHP and other opposition parties have not had any say in legislation or government at least since the post-coup installation of the state of emergency, and they will be even more insignificant after the snap election after an Erdoğan win. Opposition parties have increasingly less to lose and Erdoğan’s corrupt, undemocratic and repressive regime provides ample ammunition. The CHP needs the courage and leadership to use the ammunition to galvanise its base and the larger opposition.