Can the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition movement and
the inheritor of Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of a Western and secular country,
challenge the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the upcoming June
Ever since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has successfully
injected social conservatism and anti-Western values into the country’s social
life and foreign policy, and done so with growing popular support. So, can the
CHP hope to defeat the AKP?
Until last year, the answer was no, for the outdated
and tired CHP was unable to put forth a convincing vision of how Turkey should
evolve, as opposed to the AKP’s moving model.
Now things are different:
first, in May, the CHP elected a new charismatic leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Then, recently, he won enough support from the CHP delegates to form a new party
assembly composed of fresh new faces, including a 26-year-old woman with a
recent PhD, diplomats from Turkey’s pro-Western Foreign Ministry and
businesswomen, union leaders, liberal college professors and
Despite earlier predictions that the CHP old guard would
prevent Kilicdaroglu from getting people representing his vision of “New
Kemalism” – a liberal and updated version of modern Turkey’s founding ideology –
elected to the party assembly, he has succeeded in changing the CHP’s top
Since Turkish political parties are top-down structures, this
means the CHP will now change from the top down in the run up to the 2011
elections. For the first time since 2002, the AKP faces a real challenge from a
renewed opposition that, unlike its predecessor, is forward-looking, with a
vision to create a new liberal and pro-Western Turkey.
THIS IS good news
for democracy in Turkey.
Ever since the AKP assumed power, analysts had
been worried by two problems in the political system: an increasingly
authoritarian ruling party that tramples over democratic checks and balances,
for instance punishing independent media with tax fines, and an ineffective
opposition that is unable to define its vision of where Turkey should go if not
along the AKP path.
Now, the second problem seems to be alleviated, at
least in part until the new CHP defines a new relationship between religion,
conservatism and a secular polity to compete against the AKP’s working model of
a socially conservative society in which religiosity is a growing source of
A fact that is missing to most observers of
politics in Muslim countries – and in fact to most Muslims and Turks – is that
conservatism and religiosity are not Siamese twins. One can be religious and not
conservative, or conservative but not religious.
Yet the AKP defines the
two as interchangeable in the Turkish context. Take for instance, the story of a
young woman in Istanbul of mixed Muslim/Greek Orthodox heritage. This woman told
me she had applied for a job with a branch of the AKP-controlled Istanbul city
government. In her job interview the woman was told the AKP government would
hire her if she agreed to wear an Islamic style head scarf.
responded that she was also Greek Orthodox, she was told, “You don’t need to
convert; all you have to do is cover your head.”
This exhibits just how
the AKP is successfully juxtaposing religiosity with social
And through this strategy, the party is gaining legitimacy
in a mostly religious society, while driving conservatism across the
To challenge this strategy and set up a serious alternative to the
AKP in the polls, the CHP must delink social conservatism and religiosity, also
ending the AKP’s monopoly over the “the party of religion” brand.
way, Kilicdaroglu’s New Kemalism can uphold the separation of religion and
government, while taking advantage of the distinction between social
conservatism and religiosity.
Turks are by definition a religious people;
opinion polls show that more than 90 percent believe in God. The CHP has to make
peace with this fact, adjusting its vision of secularism to accommodate
Yet, at the same time, New Kemalism ought to be clear
on social conservatism. While there is nothing wrong with it per se, social
conservatism imposed by a government, as demonstrated by the experience of the
aforementioned Greek Orthodox/Muslim woman, is incompatible with the idea of a
liberal Western society that New Kemalism wishes to represent.
words, the CHP has to reinvent its identity as the party of secularism, to find
a place where it can be at peace with religion, but also promote socially
liberal values. Then, Kilicdaroglu cannot only hope to challenge the AKP, but
also bask in the glory of achieving a first for a political party in any Muslim
society, unhitching religiosity and social conservatism.
Kilicdaroglu’s New Kemalism would also open the path for a liberal-religious
polity in a predominantly Muslim society. This is indeed a tall order, but it is
the only way that the CHP can win.The writer is a senior fellow at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy and coauthor (with Scott Carpenter) of
Nuanced Gestures: Regenerating the US-Turkey Partnership (2010).