Too many chiefs in the CHP

While I was talking with a group of ambassadors from European Union member states about the possible comeback of the former chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Deniz Baykal, last week, all of them agreed that if that happens, it would definitely indicate a lack of democratic maturity in Turkish politics and the failure to nurture an alternative.

Well, he has not come back, for the moment at least. But the conclusion may not be so different, judging from the composition of the innermost power circle behind the new chairman, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. It appears that hard-liners stepped in the powerful 80-member Party Council to replace the cronies of Baykal. Most importantly, Önder Sav, a longtime ally of Baykal until his resignation and sort of kingmaker within the party with his own group of provincial delegates, did not allow any democratic changes to take place in the selection of new members.

Sav’s strong-arming has already triggered a major rift within the party, and we will surely see more of that in the coming weeks and months. Uncomfortable with Sav’s tutelage over the party, former leader Baykal tried to curb his power by getting new bylaws adopted in 2008. These changes would have been put into effect in this convention had Baykal remained in power. However, they were suspended at the snap of a finger after Sav rallied provincial branch leaders against changes.

Well, we could certainly argue that the posture and comments of the newly elected leader matter most in the public discourse, notwithstanding the well-known policies of the CHP’s shadow leader, Sav. On that note, however, Kılıçdaroğlu did not offer much hope with the address he made at the convention.

The speech that the 61-year-old new party boss delivered to party delegates didn’t appeal to young voters and the emerging powerful middle class in Turkey. It had many references to the policies of the ’60s and ’70s, when Turkey was largely an agrarian society. For example, he promised the reintroduction of family social insurance, abolished in 1971, and offered free land to farmers in the Southeast. While he asked for improvements for the retired, he failed to offer a new vision to the young in a country where half of the population is below the age of 28.

He already made the CHP party to the ongoing trial in the country by supporting defendants in the trial of Ergenekon — a clandestine organization whose suspected members are charged with attempting to overthrow the government — saying his party plans to abolish specially authorized courts when it comes to power. While he was making the speech, the pictures of jailed suspects in the Ergenekon trial were shown on a big screen inside the congress hall.
He opposed the government’s reform package, which would bring Turkey closer to EU norms and standards. Though he himself is Kurdish, Kılıçdaroğlu made no mention of the Kurdish question and failed to endorse the government initiatives to offer more rights and freedoms to discriminated groups such as Kurds, Alevis and the Roma.

Strangely enough he reduced the expectations of Kurds to economic problems by asking for interest-free loans for would-be investors in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region of Turkey. First of all, such incentives are already in place. Secondly, economic reforms and incentives have failed to address the demands of Kurds. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) reacted negatively to the message, and its co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, was quoted as saying, “Kılıçdaroğlu has indicated that the normal CHP policies will remain in place.”

As expected, there was no major change in stance when it came to dealing with the EU’s policies. The new chairman said they would not yield to the European Union’s double standards, hinting that his approach to the EU is not going to be very different from that of Baykal. During a TV interview last week, he also endorsed a change of axis in foreign policy with Russia, China and India.

Though highly unlikely, let’s assume for a moment that this parade is a smokescreen and well-devised scheme for internal consumption to curtail disarray within the party. After securing the integrity of the CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu will gear the party toward modern social democratic values. Unfortunately, time is not on his side as the general elections will be held next year, and a referendum on constitutional changes for more rights and freedoms will be held in September. So it is the time to show his true colors.

It seems, under Baykal, that we had only one chief who reigned in political bickering among party members at the top and kept the party intact by securing allegiances of warring factions. With Kılıçdaroğlu at the helm of the party, I see too many chiefs who are trying to push their own separate agendas, but not enough Indians.

The only way out of this deadlock is to appeal to the masses directly by bringing the CHP in line with the policies of its peers in Europe: Modern social values focusing on broader rights and freedoms, better protection of minorities and of workers, more transparency and full accountability in governance, enforcement of the rule of law when it comes to dealing with gangs and shadowy networks and endorsing civilian rule over military tutelage.

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