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About the necessary democratic transformation of the CHP

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

For a truly democratic political alternation in Turkey

Alexis Krikorian


Egemen Bağış (AKP, former Minister of European Affairs) & Deniz Baykal (former leader of the CHP) sitting together at a hearing on the Armenian genocide (Perinçek v. Switzerland case) at the Council of Europe (January 2015). 

Is the term "social-democratic", which is often used by the media and news agencies such as the AFP [1] to describe the Republican People's Party (CHP), appropriate? In many respects, this epithet is unfortunately not (yet) deserved and would require a democratic mutation that the Kemalist party, which is very nationalist, has not yet and is far from embarking on. It would also require the existence of an agenda on social issues that has often been lacking [2]. This last point (social issues) is not the subject of this article, so we will not return to it.

The CHP is the historical party of the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and considers itself, to date, as the guardian of Kemalism as a State ideology. So much so that the party's logo still consists of the 6 arrows that represent the fundamental principles of Kemalism:

- Republicanism;

- Nationalism;

- Statism;

- Populism;

- Secularism;

- Reformism.

In this six-headed ensemble, the strength, if not the primacy, of nationalism has been evident since the founding of the modern Republic in the establishment of a Turkish State that is unitary, secular and authoritarian. This ideology considers Kurdish or Armenian issues as dangers for Turkish national and territorial unity and causes the party to adopt what amounts to an anti-Kurdish or anti-minority attitude, even if a significant part of its electoral base, such as the party leader himself, is Alevi [3]. And even if the party has social-democratic and pro-Kurdish elements [4]. Nationalism at all costs continues to prevail in the CHP and, in particular, at the head of the CHP. Hasn't Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the party since 2010, threatened to conquer Greek islands in the Aegean Sea on the model of Cyprus in 1974 when Ecevit (CHP) was in power [5]?

Beyond this recent example showing the existence of an aggressive form of nationalism at the head of the CHP, there is unfortunately no shortage of examples of authoritarianism and nationalism emanating from the CHP. For example:

- Constant criticism of the AKP government's peace process with the PKK, which, at the time of its establishment, constituted a real breakthrough in the history of the modern Republic.

- Silence on the repression and marginalization of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) and the vote for the lifting of the immunities of its mandate holders in May 2016 [6].

- Support (at least initially) for the Turkish military invasion of the Kurdish territories in northern Syria [7].

- Call for an operation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

- Unassumed alliance with the HDP to win the city hall of Istanbul twice in 2019 [8].

- Assumed alliance with, among others, the IYI party (secular and nationalist) in various recent elections.

- Continuous and visceral denial of the Armenian genocide [9].

- Multiple racist statements such as the one made by MP Aritman in 2008 about the then president Abdullah Gül, whose Armenian mother would have explained his reserved attitude towards the petition of intellectuals asking forgiveness for the genocide [10].

- Support sometimes displayed for the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves organization at the highest party level [11].

This distanciation from truly social-democratic values probably explains the unanimous adoption of a report by the Socialist International in June 2007 in Geneva[12], calling for an investigation to verify the CHP's attachment to the principles of democracy. At the time, many members wanted to exclude the party [13]. But the exclusion did not take place. This is regrettable. For if the Socialist International had shown courage in excluding this party, it would then have really supported, perhaps decisively, the social democratic values in Turkey. Let us not forget either that Deniz Baykal, the strong man of the CHP at the time, was vice-president of the Socialist International from 2005 to 2008. For him, exclusion was not on the agenda at all [14].

Kemalism remains one of the 6 major taboos [15] that limit freedom of expression in Turkey. One can add to it the Armenian genocide, the Kurdish question, the action of the army, the position of women and Sharia Law. As a former director of the Freedom to Publish program of the International Publishers' Association (IPA), I can testify, beyond the media modes, to the existence and persistence in Turkey of a draconian legislative arsenal that is heavily applied and which forces citizens, writers, journalists, publishers and artists to self-censor on a multitude of subjects that have become taboo.

Law 5816, protecting Atatürk's memory from insults, is used in many areas, including online content, and can be linked to the huge arsenal criminalizing defamation in Turkey. This law also applies to printed material. Among many examples are the lawsuits against the publisher Zarakolu under this law after he published the translation of George Jerjian's book The Truth Will Set Us Free (Gercek bizi Ozgur Kalicak, Belge, Istanbul 2004). Or that of Professor Mönch of the University of Bremen who, in a speech to the European Parliament in 2008, had indicated that, in his view, Atatürk would be prosecuted for war crimes if he were still alive. Appeals that are moreover beginning to mount today against Erdoğan himself [16]. More than ever enforced, as shown by the censorship on the "Turkish Facebook" [17], this law protecting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk exposes any statement critical of the founder of the Turkish Republic to up to four and a half years in prison.

Surprisingly, the abolition of this law is generally not called for by NGOs defending freedom of expression at the international level. They generally focus on Article 301 of the Turkish penal code defending "Turkishness" or the legislative arsenal against terrorism, the terms of which are very vague, and therefore allow a massive level of prosecutions and imprisonment. The fact remains that Kemalism is a major taboo subject in Turkish society.

Kılıçdaroğlu, as we have seen, is not the right person to carry out the social democratization of the CHP. This was, however, its declared goal at the beginning[18]. Would Ekrem Imamoğlu be a better option to carry out this work? His election in 2019 as mayor of Istanbul has aroused a legitimate wave of optimism in Turkey and in the Western media. If it is true that his election marked a form of resilience in Turkish electoral democracy, despite all the setbacks and all the attacks on the rule of law under Erdoğan's fierce reign, it says nothing, as we have seen, about the real democratic quality of his party, the CHP.

Will the CHP have the courage, with Imamoğlu, to choose between outdated authoritarianism and democracy? Will it find the strength to abandon its rigid attitude towards the Kurds and other minorities in favor of genuine social-democratic liberalization? Will the CHP with Imamoğlu have the guts to abandon its rejection of the Armenian genocide and finally recognize, as Jacques Chirac did during the historic Vel d'Hiv speech, the responsibility of the State apparatus in the destruction of the Armenians?

As long as the CHP is stuck on a narrow vision of Kemalism (uncompromising and paranoid nationalism, authoritarianism, centralism, etc.) and does not proceed to a true Copernican revolution of what it is by opening up to civil society and embracing a liberal vision of the State, the nation and minority rights, it cannot be expected to make a substantial contribution to the democratization of the country and to the end of the cycle of violence that the Turkish State is accustomed to within and outside its borders.

In Turkey, unlike in 1945 Germany, no external power has ever imposed democratization and acceptance of the crimes committed by the previous regime. External pressures can and should play a role. But democratic salvation can only really come from within the country.

A new generation of leaders - after a desirable opening up to civil society - will have to take on the "reformist" arrow in the party logo seriously again and make a deep critical review of Kemalism. It will have to undertake, for example, to abolish Article 301 of the Penal Code or Law 5816 - a very important symbol - to abandon, once and for all, its expansionist foreign policy, to finally acknowledge the Armenian genocide, to make peace with the Kurds, to commit itself to an inclusive Turkish citizenship to the detriment of the narrow concept of "Turkishness" alone In short, a new generation of leaders will have to commit to making Turkey a country at peace with others and with itself. At peace with its past and resolutely looking towards a future that is finally bright.

Doesn't the CHP, which represents a bloc of 20 to 25% of the votes at the national level [19], have in any case an interest in this real democratic change if it really wants one day to regain power at the national level in an alliance with the HDP (associate member of the Socialist International) and other progressive parties, thus forming a kind of "gauche plurielle", Turkish style?

Otherwise, a hypothetical political alternation that would lead the CHP or a bloc around it to power would not lead to a social-democratic takeover in Turkey, but to a takeover by an equally nationalist bloc - to the AKP - MHP bloc currently in power - barely mitigated with secularism. This would certainly please Western countries, which would be happy to turn the Erdoğan chapter, but should only lighten the work of human rights NGOs in a superficial way. The "comedy" of democratic alternation would be respected, but in substance, beyond secularism, nothing would really change.

[2] Where is Turkey Headed?: Culture Battles in Turkey, Rainer Hermann

[13] Where is Turkey Headed?: Culture Battles in Turkey, Rainer Hermann

15] Journalist Ragip Duran, sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1998 and 2018 for "terrorist propaganda", was among those who listed these taboos.

[19] CHP results in the legislative elections between 2002 and 2018 were always between 19.39 and 25.98% of the vote. Its alliance with the good party (IYI) brought it only 7 to 8% more votes in 2018.

[20] The Gauche Plurielle (French for Plural Left) was a left-wing coalition in France, composed of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Greens, the Left Radical Party and the Citizens' Movement. The coalition won the 1997 legislative elections and ruled the country under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (Socialist Party) until 2002.

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