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Turkey's opposition turns left to find 'utopia', but not everyone follows

The CHP's attempt to be many things to many people has failed. Its answer is to shift to the left of politics - to the dismay of some supporters
CHP supporters on the 'March for Justice' after losing the 2017 presidential referendum (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – For most of the last 15 years Turkey's oldest political party has tried to be many things to many people. And it has failed miserably.

The election of Canan Kaftancioglu as the Republican People's Party (CHP) Istanbul chief on 14 January, however, was the strongest signal yet of a pattern indicating a new approach which is more left-leaning and social democratic in nature.

And it duly sent shockwaves through both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and within the CHP itself.

The party's core principle has been strict adherence to a rigid interpretation of secularism and nationalism.

Many of the CHP's members and supporters attribute these principles to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder who also established the CHP. 

Kaftancioglu embraces a far more left-wing ideology, and her statements on a variety of topics suggest she is willing to question the state's view on many issues it practically considers "non-negotiable".  

Her election indicates a plan of reform by the CHP leadership to expand its appeal and draw leftist, Kurdish and conservative voters, hoping to exceed the 20-25 percent vote it can usually bank on.

Canan Kaftancioglu, the new CHP chief in Istanbul (screengrab)

The CHP's previous claims to represent the centre left of Turkish politics have often sounded hollow given most of the party's positions in parliament and outside have been pro status quo and statist.

Despite being a member of Socialist International, the CHP's positions means it has even made for more comfortable bedfellows with Europe's centre-right rather than left parties.

The party sees presidential elections due in 2019 as one that will determine Turkey's destiny. Whoever is elected will enjoy unrivalled powers after an April 2017 referendum narrowly endorsed a shift to an executive presidential system.    

The CHP has too much previous baggage to count on a surge of votes from conservatives in Anatolia, whatever its new stance.

Is what is happening within the CHP good? Yes, but a lot more needs to be done

- Tarhan Erdem, Konda pollster

But Turkey's population distribution shows that its densely populated urban centres are crucial to deciding election outcomes. And the referendum – in which most urban centres voted against the AKP's executive presidency bid - showed that conservatives in cities are no longer willing to vote on sheer loyalty alone.

Tarhan Erdem, the director of polling firm Konda and a former CHP cabinet minister, told Middle East Eye that these moves by the CHP reflect favourably in polls but it needed to do a lot more.

"There is no new CHP. There is no reform. But is what is happening within the CHP good? Yes, but a lot more needs to be done," Erdem told MEE.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP since 2010 (Reuters)

Others say the CHP is now starting to take up the reformist and inclusionary mantle that the AKP had successfully worn during its early years in power, before shifting to an authoritarian and nationalist line in recent years.

The nationalists within the CHP have been largely sidelined since Kemal Kilicdaroglu took over as party chief in 2010, according to Tanju Tosun, the head of the administrative sciences and economics department at the Ege University in Izmir.

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Tosun, in an interview with the Turkish Bianet website, suggested the CHP was shifting closer to the positions of the Social Democrat Populist Party (SHP) that was launched after the 1980 military coup and the banning of the CHP. 

The SHP later merged with the CHP in 1995, which had relaunched after its ban was lifted. The SHP was more of a social-democratic party and had a more progressive line on the need to promote the issues facing Turkey's ethnic Kurdish citizens.

"The Istanbul example [Kaftancioglu's election] potentially enables the CHP to become like the SHP. It can carry out this process by focusing on labour, democratisation, freedoms and human rights. This would represent true leftist politics," said Tosun.

Kilicdaroglu's attempt at a more inclusionary approach has already proved positive. He drew a crowd of more than a million at a rally for justice in Istanbul on 9 July last year. The rally was the climax of a nearly 450km march for justice he had launched the previous month from the capital Ankara.

However, not everybody within the CHP is pleased.

Umit Kocasakal, a former chief of the Istanbul bar association, last week announced he would run against Kilicdaroglu for the party's chairmanship in February's party convention. He has based his campaign on returning the CHP to its real roots as a Kemalist nationalist party.

Ataturk's image adorns the Besiktas municipality building in Istanbul (Reuters)

'Nothing more than conscience fetishism'

Some of Kaftancioglu's past remarks in particular, and the CHP's direction overall, is alarming for other party supporters too.

Kaftancioglu's use of the word "genocide" in a tweet to mark the incidents of 1915, which resulted in 1.5 million deaths of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian citizens, and her refusal to call herself "Ataturk's soldier" in another, irks with more traditionalist CHP supporters.

Turkey rejects the term genocide for what happened in 1915, saying the deaths of Armenian subjects was due to the chaos that came with a crumbling empire in its last days. Ankara says an international commission of historians should research all available archives before reaching any conclusions.

The chant of "We are Mustafa Kemal's soldiers" is popular with Kemalists and has grown in popularity among other sections of society in the last few years as well. Kaftancioglu instead preferred to use "we are Ataturk's comrades" due to the other's militaristic overtones.

Unfortunately there is an attempt to portray Ataturk as a hero of the past and the CHP is also being affected by it

- Uluc Gurkan, Ataturkist Thought Association

Uluc Gurkan, deputy president of the Ataturkist Thought Association, told MEE that all this is just "conscience fetishism" in the guise of being leftist, and the only solution for the CHP, Turkey and even the entire region in the 21st century was a return to Ataturk's principles and values.

"No one person can define what the Armenian situation was on their own on behalf of the CHP or anyone else. Calling oneself Ataturk's soldier is purely a symbolic statement and nothing to do with militarism. It is a call to resist the regressive changes occurring today," said Gurkan.

"Unfortunately there is an attempt to portray Ataturk as a hero of the past and the CHP is also being affected by it."

Gurkan said he was not convinced by Kaftancioglu but the onus was on her to show "that she is from the CHP and not for the CHP to adapt to her".

"This sort of conscience fetishism is not leftism. Leftism is nationalism. And to dispel any misunderstanding when we say nationalism, we believe in equal rights for all our citizens and that includes ethnic Kurdish ones," said Gurkan.   

He said Kocasakal's remarks about returning the CHP to its roots deserved attention.

"The party needs to realise that other attempts at widening its appeal by straying from its ideals had failed. The CHP needs to be revived not reinvented. And that means a return to its original ideals," he said.  

Kaftancioglu's tweet from 2012: Today in history: Armenian genocide started. We commemorate our murdered Armenian citizens at 19:15 in Taksim.

For Tosun, the nationalists within the CHP have no choice but to adapt if they want to see the party put in a strong challenge against Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP.

According to Erdem, it is views like the ones held by Kocasakal that damage the CHP and its prospects.

"The person saying this is not a serious person and you cannot take what he is saying seriously," said Erdem.

"Turkey needs a utopia. A real project and model where we can all live together and celebrate our diversity. We don't need a return to the past when we say reform."

Meanwhile, the now completely nationalist-inclined Erdogan wasted no time in launching an attack on Kaftancioglu and the CHP. He said her election was proof of "treason" within the CHP.

In his role as AKP chairman, Erdogan spent a considerable amount of time attacking her during a parliamentary address to his party's MPs last week. He even had a slideshow prepared and displayed her "treasonous" tweets.

Kaftancioglu has neither deleted nor backed down from what she has posted in the past.

Kilicdaroglu has firmly backed her election and even welcomed those challenging him at the party congress in February.

He said that unlike the AKP, which forces elected officials to resign and prefers appointees chosen from above, "democracy for the CHP begins in the party itself".

The emergence of the centre-right Good Party, and a potential challenge to Erdogan from within the more moderate ranks of the AKP itself in the shape of former president, Abdullah Gul, means the CHP will need to close ranks after its February convention, whichever direction it chooses to proceed in. 

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