SETA, Turkey’s Foundation for Political Economic and Social Research, has published an interesting policy brief† setting out the challenges facing Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as he tries to restore the electoral fortunes of the CHP. Written by Ödül Celep from the International Relations department of Işık University, the briefing sets out a caustic critique of the Baykal years before proposing a number of reforms that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu should introduce in his party.
For the most part these proposed reforms are much needed and well argued. However, Mr Celep does himself no favours by presenting them in terms of movement along a right-left political spectrum. Framing the debate in this way reduces the likelihood of significant progress and distracts from the authoritarianism-democratisation spectrum that is of more fundamental importance in Turkey at the moment.
Mr Celep is rightly scathing in his criticism of Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s predecessor, Deniz Baykal, whom he dismisses for his elitism, inefficiency, inflexibility, intellectual shallowness, ideological confusion and extreme conservatism. Mr Baykal led his party up a series of dead-ends on a succession of touchstone questions of political freedom: by refusing to take a clear stand against military involvement in the political process, by reducing the Kurdish question to a military conflict against terrorists, and by failing to budge from inherited hardline secularist positions on the headscarf ban.
By contrast, says Mr Celep, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu should move the CHP rapidly in a more “contemporary, progressive” direction. Old Kemalist responses to the issues mentioned above should be tempered with the kind of liberalising principles that have become the norm in European political discourse: equality, individual rights, multiculturalism, social justice. I would share Mr Celep’s view that Turkey needs to grapple much more whole-heartedly with all of these ideas. But I’m not convinced by his attempts to contextualise them in terms of an appeal to “bring the left back to Turkish politics”.
Mr Celep is right to identify the lack of a coherent intellectual underpinning as a problem of the Baykal-era CHP. But he is wrong to identify an assertively leftist politics as the best way of filling that gap. What Turkey needs first and foremost is greater protection for individual rights; whether that comes from the left or right of the political spectrum is of secondary concern at this stage in the country’s development. Both philosophical traditions, left and right, can be used to underpin individual rights. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu would be better off pragmatically making whatever progress he can using resources from either tradition rather than improbably fixing his sights on transforming the conservative CHP into a force of the progressive left.
Mr Celep makes much of the largely irrelevant fact that the CHP is a member of the Socialist International group, arguing that the party should develop policies more in line with that organisation’s worldview. He wants “radical change”. If this alienates the party’s traditional voters (whom he describes as “generally urban, white-collar, educated, relatively wealthy and older people”), then so be it, he suggests. But if the objective is to build a political party that can match AKP in a broadly two-party system, then this seems wilfully counter-productive. Surely the challenge is to find policies and language that will attract new voters without driving away what has become the party’s core vote?
Mr Celep correctly stresses the importance of securing the rights of “all the disadvantaged groups in society, including Kurds, Alevis, Romanis, and non-Muslims”. He calls for an unconditional commitment to freedom of expression. He notes the need for much more nuanced polices on the headscarf and Kurdish issues. All of these are worthy proposals, but none of them necessarily requires the broader left-wing approach with which Mr Celep bundles them. To take one specific example, would any of this really require Mr Kılıçdaroğlu to commit himself to “equality of outcome”?
Mr Kılıçdaroğlu would be better advised, in my view, to focus more pragmatically on stressing the importance of basic individual rights that apply across the political spectrum. These protections are needed by the “disadvantaged” groups that Mr Celep mentions. But he misses a political trick by failing to see that they are also an issue for those in this country who possess every advantage. It is the absence of a firm bedrock of individual rights that leads to fears even among Turkey’s elites that their way of life is under threat. Fears like these have bolstered Turkey’s deep-seated authoritarianism over many decades.
Adopting a staunchly leftist stance as Mr Celep proposes risks frightening the horses, thereby further fragmenting the political opposition to the AKP. That would be the very opposite of Mr Celep’s stated intention. Developing the CHP’s platform to include an increased focus on individual rights, on the other hand, might retain the core of the party’s support while also allowing it to expand by targetting Mr Celep’s disadvantaged voters, not to mention those who have supported the AKP over the past decade on pragmatic rather than religious grounds. Overcoming the opposition that would exist to this kind of liberalising reform of the CHP’s platform should be more than enough of a challenge for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu without getting too far into questions of economic redistribution.
Turkey can resolve its position on the left-right spectrum at a later date. For the moment the priority should be placed firmly on securing the basic individual freedoms that are taken for granted across most of Europe regardless of whether the governments in power are leftist, rightist, conservative or radical.