Yahya Madra
Jan 06 2018

One more push, republicans, if you want to be social democrats!

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is a complex entity. From afar where I stand, it appears to be mainly composed of Kemalist republicans with social democratic leanings. It presents itself as a staunchly secular party yet it has been making efforts to open its ranks to Kurdish (e.g., Sezgin Tanrıkulu) and devout Muslim politicians (e.g., Mehmet Bekaroğlu).

The CHP has a left-liberal economic programme for equitable and environmentally friendly capitalist development. It distinguishes itself from he ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), by promising to re-institute the independence of the judicial system as well as the institutions that govern the economy, such as the central bank the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency.

It promises to implement competitiveness enhancing policies to lift the country from the middle-income trap where it has been stuck under the AKP’s construction-sector led, debt-financed regime.

While the former is supposed to restore accountability, and create a more predictable business environment, the latter aims to reshape the composition of economy by supporting and cultivating knowledge-based sectors.

There is nothing surprising in all this, the CHP is neither a revolutionary party, nor even a radical democrat one like pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

One should not expect an anti-capitalist or a post-capitalist programme from a centre-left political party. In fact, were an average pro-market, centre-right voter to read CHP’s economic and political programme he or she would probably find nothing to complain about. The programme reads as if it is written with such a prospective reader in mind. Its main proposition to the general public is that it will govern the country in a more predictable and accountable manner than the out-of-control ways of AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Yet, despite its overall agreeableness, the CHP cannot seem to reach beyond its 25% electoral base, which corresponds to roughly to 135 of the total 550 parliamentary seats. Moreover, recent polls indicate that the newest addition to the political arena, Meral Akşener’s nationalist-centrist Good Party seems to have attracted some of CHP’s centre-right voters. In other words, the CHP is losing some of the secular centre-right voters that it has gained in 2002, when the centre-right collapsed and its legacy was largely taken over by the AKP.

In those early days, AKP signalled that it was easing up on its Islamic rhetoric and presented itself as a “conservative democrat” party.  Today, it is claiming that it is the bulwark of Sunni-Turkish nationalist majority waging an “independence war” against imperial powers.

In short, between the AKP, the Good Party, and whatever remains of Devlet Bahçeli’s ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the right wing of the political spectrum is pretty much parcelled out. And, more importantly, the only thing they offer to this roughly 70% of the population is variations on the nationalist theme.

So, the CHP faces a choice. It will either try to compete with these peddlers of nationalism at their own game or break itself from the spell the “Yenikapı” consensus, which sustains the legitimacy of the state of emergency by excluding the pro-Kurdish HDP from the political field.

When there are already a plenty of authentic options (Erdoğan, Bahçeli, Akşener), the CHP does not have much chance of making any in-roads into the nationalist demographic. Its nationalism is sterile and fails to solicit the requisite passionate attachment from the public.

Moreover, in unconvincingly performing the sterile nationalist discourse, CHP puts a wedge between itself and democratic Kurdish voters. Furthermore, in its resistance to distinguish itself from the nationalist chorus, it fails to emerge as a plausible address for devout Muslims who prefer peace to war and democracy over one-man rule. For this reason, competing with nationalists is a dead-end for the CHP.

A similar argument can be made about Akşener’s Good Party. To the extent that members of the party are heavily invested in nationalism, its reach is also limited.

This is a paradoxical situation. At one level, historically but especially so under the “Yenikapı” spirit, nationalism is the ideological leitmotiv of all mainstream political parties (with the exception of HDP).  Yet since each form of nationalism is over-determined by other social differences (secular vs. devout; Sunni vs. Alevi; rural vs. urban; working class vs. middle class), none of the contenders can fully dominate the nationalist spectrum.

Erdoğan cannot extend his reach to secular and Alevi nationalists and, looking at the April 16, 2017 Constitutional Change Referendum results, seems to be failing to convince urban and middle class nationalists. Akşener appears to be gaining traction especially in those sectors of nationalism that is urban, middle class and centrist.

But to the extent that the Good Party cannot reach the Kurdish votes, it cannot reach beyond the zone between the AKP and CHP and achieve what ANAP in the 1980s and AKP in 2000s managed to do: cobbling together a centre-right popular coalition that includes Turkish nationalists and Kurdish conservatives and liberals.

Ergin Yıldızoğlu, a columnist for the Cumhuriyet daily, argues that the CHP should stop trying to speak to the AKPs social base and try to bring together different sectors of social opposition, organise them into a solid body politic and build up their capacity to move together in a coherent and coordinated manner.

Even though Yıldızoğlu does not name it, we all know that the CHP’s only chance of moving forward is to break from the straitjacket of “Yenikapı” nationalism and to begin marching together with the HDP in the name of peace, justice and democracy for all.

To accomplish this, the CHP does not have to agree with the HDP. For instance, the CHP can disagree with the HDP on the issue of introducing Kurdish as another language of instruction in the educational system. At this point it is sufficient for the CHP to publicly and vocally recognise the HDP as a legitimate political entity. And this is the minimal requirement for the CHP to be able to begin moving together with the HDP.

To be honest, when its 10 of its members of parliament and thousands of its ordinary members are in prison, defending the HDP’s right to demand social, political, cultural and economic rights is itself a democratic political act that would radically change the political field, including the CHP’s future prospects.

In other words, the CHP and HDP do not have to merge into a single front. But they should be able to speak with each other and make this conversation public. Only in this way, can the social opposition begin to reconstruct a new field of legitimacy as an alternative to “Yenikapı” nationalism that continues to uphold the increasingly out-of-control state of emergency.