Underdog DSP challenges CHP’s ‘leftist’ title

It seems strange to see some observers of Turkish politics treat the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as the sole contender on the center-left of the Turkish political spectrum, while the CHP’s credentials for leftist and social democratic values are very much being challenged and disputed because of hard-line nationalistic, pro-military, anti-reform and elitist policies adopted by the CHP in recent years to fervently defend the status quo.

Even more troubling is that the CHP has failed miserably in its main responsibility as a political party — to come up with a real and detailed layout of alternative strategies to tackle the most fundamental issues facing the nation. No matter what issue one might refer to in today’s Turkey, the CHP would fall short of the expectations of most voters, which in turn has led to its poor performance in successive national elections. The CHP has not garnered enough support to become a single-party government since 1950, when Turkey moved to a multi-party democratic election system.

If you ask me, the current leadership of the party, under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, does not give much hope for the Turkish left, either. Many were excited to see that Kılıçdaroğlu, after taking the helm of the party, quickly organized a team to study the Kurdish problem with the ultimate aim of offering his own package of solutions. We have not seen any action by the members designated by the CHP leader nor had a chance to glance over a report that does not seem to be forthcoming any time soon. His flip-flops and U-turns on many national and international issues make it very difficult to offer a convincing case for the future of the CHP.

The only formidable alternative to the CHP on the left side of the political landscape is the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the legacy of prominent leftist and former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, who successfully carried his party to power twice in the 1990s. The DSP has performed much better in comparison to the CHP in the search for a panacea to the nation’s illnesses. DSP leader Masum Türker has not limited his party’s opposition to the governance of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to simple populist rhetoric but rather preferred to challenge the government with his party’s own set of proposals, pushing the debate on substantive issues. For example, when the government came up with the 28-article constitutional change package last summer, the DSP offered its own 20-point plan to change the Constitution. Much was in line with the government draft with the exception that the DSP also wanted changes in political parties and election laws.

Though the DSP made a strategic mistake by taking a position against the constitutional changes simply because it was rebuffed by the government on demands it raised, it was the only party that made the nationwide debate on the substance of the package. If you look at the speeches delivered by DSP leader Türker in various cities and towns, you would realize he tried to engage the public on the details of the proposed changes. But the anti-reform position put the party in the shadow of the main opposition CHP. Instead, I think, they should have projected a different approach to try and differentiate the party from the CHP. Putting distance and space from your closest competitor is the best tactic one could employ if you studied introduction to politics 101.

To be fair, the DSP did in fact differentiate itself from CHP in some cases, projecting an image of a party that could easily appeal to the voters on both sides of the electoral divide. On the Kurdish issue, the DSP supported the government initiative, saying the country needs to get rid of the terror problem at once. Türker even convinced Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to drop the name “Kurdish initiative” in favor of the “democratization process.” That was a brilliant tactic as it would otherwise inflame sensitivities nationwide, making the initiative stillborn in the hands of the AK Party. The DSP saw the bigger picture and argued that all impediments to the collective exercise of basic rights and freedoms should be eliminated.

On problems with the justice system, Türker is clear that Turkey urgently needs an overhaul of the judiciary and judicial system. In fact, not everybody knows this, but the four constitutional articles adopted in the recent referendum were actually written by Hikmet Sami Türk, former DSP justice minister. The party endorsed articles in the reform with regard to changes in the highest judicial bodies such as reshaping the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Türker advocated the idea that judicial review should be introduced into the decisions of bodies such as military and judicial councils. He also welcomed suggestions from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission in revamping rules for the closure of political parties in Turkey.

Again in sharp contrast to the CHP, the DSP has been critical of military interference in civilian politics on many occasions. On foreign policy issues, the DSP differs from the CHP in that it actually supports the EU membership process, not on the surface but in practice as well. While the CHP claims it supports the process, it tried to block almost every initiative put forward by the government to speed up EU membership negotiations. However, Türker does not shy away from criticizing the EU for what he calls double standards and a two-faced approach when it comes to the Cyprus issue, for example.

Even on a political hot potato issue like Armenian rapprochement, Türker supports the idea that Turkey should have friendly relations with all its neighbors including Armenia, with the added caveat that Yerevan should respect the territorial integrity of Turkey and Azerbaijan and cease land claims to both countries. He was critical of Swiss mediation, however, as he said Switzerland is not an honest broker because its Parliament has recognized the 1915 incidents as genocide.

For the moment the DSP is an underdog party on the left. But if the CHP disappoints voters once again in the upcoming elections in June, which many predict it will, it may rise again to be the star party of the left.

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