Thursday, 16 June 2011

Turkey's CHP: The aftermath

The failure of the main opposition party, the secular CHP, to hit a 30% target set by its new leader has provoked a growing storm of intraparty criticism, according to the media. Despite the fact that the party gained only 25% of the vote, CHP boss Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has put on a brave face, pointing out that he CHP is the only party to have increased its number of parliamentary seats in the election. True enough, but that has everything to do with constituency boundaries and very little to do with popularity. He is clear, though, that the number of votes is “not sufficient”.
Hurriyet (June 15th) reports that a group of ‘dissidents’ within the party, led by the septuagenarian former leader Deniz Baykal, is already beginning to mutter about who was to blame for the CHP’s poor showing. Baykal said pointedly that at the end of his leadership in May 2010, surveys were putting the CHP at 29%.

Other party insiders have admitted that the party was disorganised in the campaign, with a number of candidates who are new to politics. Policy, not just politics, is also being questioned. Analyst Aengus Collins at Istnabul Notes writes that “someone is going to have to do something very different if they want to emerge as a serious rival to the AKP”, echoing Baykal, who has privately said that copying the AKP’s policies and approach has cost the party votes.

Baykal seems an unlikely Brutus. He led the party of Ataturk into a deep malaise from which it has only just started to recover under Kılıçdaroğlu, whose honesty and bookish intelligence are a refreshing change from Baykal’s sterile gerontocracy. And he was forced out from the leadership after a videotape emerged showing him with a woman who was purportedly his mistress. But he may be aware that whoever wields the knife never wears the crown. If a plot does emerge, expect one of the younger, newer CHP members to lead the coup.

In any case Kılıçdaroğlu seems sanguine at this stage, ruling out an extraordinary party convention and privately stating his willingness to let the dissidents gather as many signatures as they can. Nonetheless his performance will undoubtedly come under scrutiny. Emre Kızılkaya, whom I was fortunate enough to chat with in Istanbul, suggests on his blog that as a political personality Kılıçdaroğlu cannot get away with the earthy, often confrontational statements which Erdoğan makes and which can be brushed off as gaffes (the Berlusconi comparison is unfortunate but perhaps appropriate).

For now, Kılıçdaroğlu is publicly focused on the main task ahead – negotiating with the ruling AKP over the new constitution. The CHP boss is reportedly angry that, after dragging his name through the mud during the campaign, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now calling for dialogue and compromise between parties. Kılıçdaroğlu called it “hypocritical politics” and insincerity. However he has nonetheless signaled his willingness to work with the AKP on drafting a replacement to the current constitution, introduced in 1982 after a military coup.

So far Kılıçdaroğlu is holding his cards to his chest, stating that the CHP did not know what the government’s plans were and that “First, we have to see the framework”. Nonetheless he told Hurriyet that he will refuse to support Erdoğan’s supposed main aim – the creation of a strong presidential system in Turkey, presumably to prolong his own hold on power.

The CHP’s suggestion is for a Constitutional Commission - comprising an equal number of members from all parties in parliament, and involving civil society and the wider parliament – to write the new constitution. In principle this would be hard for Erdoğan to turn down, given his supposed commitment to political dialogue. In practice it may prove unpalatable to his centralising, one-man show style of politics.

If a Constitutional Commission does emerge, expect its composition and mandate to be fiercely argued over by the AKP and the CHP. Whether or not Kılıçdaroğlu can stand firm will depend, in large part, on whether he can keep his potential rivals from sharpening their knives.

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