Finishing a distant second in a Turkish parliamentary election is no easy task for a party created by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. With 25.9 percent of the vote in Turkey’s June 12 elections, however, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) is learning to lick its wounds and carry on with an attempt to reinvent itself.
In a bid for fresh votes, the CHP had opted to disassociate itself from the statist economic policies and military allies of its 87-year-old past, and present itself to voters as a party for progressive, multicultural secularists who want strong ties with the European Union and a more even distribution of Turkey’s economic wealth.
Whether that strategy paid off, though, remains an open question. The CHP lost by a huge margin to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which took 49.9 percent of the popular vote. The AKP will form its third single-party government since 2002.
As they try to reconcile the CHP’s finish with their original expectations (28-30 percent of the vote), some within the party are questioning the effectiveness of promoting a “new CHP,” and the leadership of CHP chief Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
“Why couldn’t we communicate?” asked CHP spokesperson Ahu Ozyurt. “We had good products. Why wouldn’t we sell the product?”
Comparing the election campaign to running a corporation, Ozhurt conceded that the party had been disorganized from the start. There had been much infighting over candidate lists, and most of the candidates were new to politics, she said. “These people practically don't know the history of the party. They don't know the [voter] base,” she said.
Yet there is a consensus among many senior party members that offering different kinds of candidates to reshape its image was exactly what the CHP, Turkey’s oldest political party, needed to do. Since the September 2010 referendum on constitutional reform, Kılıçdaroğlu had put the focus more on social policies and civil society reform, rather than on the nationalist and anti-Western themes that characterized much of the campaign season.
Thirty-three-year-old Şafak Pavey, a former communications manager for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was one of the “new” CHP parliamentary candidates intended to appeal to a broader range of voters. Already relatively well known because of her journalist mother, Pavey, who uses a prosthetic arm and leg, commands widespread respect for her work in various war zones and developing countries.
“I am excited by the new CHP,” she said, speaking of Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempts to invigorate the party to challenge the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In the end, Pavey won her seat; one of 78 women candidates for the 550-member parliament to do so. But the issue of how best to contend with the AKP’s popularity -- based on the appeal of Islam, coupled with the promise of political stability free from military interference, and an ongoing economic boom -- lingers on.
To solve that dilemma, the CHP has to ask itself some “fundamental” questions, writes Turkey analyst Aengus Collins in his Istanbul Notes blog. “Here is one to start with: is a platform combining left-leaning economic policy with relatively hard-line secularism one from which an election can be won in Turkey?”
In response, CHP spokesperson Ozhurt wonders if the party tried to present a new face too quickly, not leaving adequate time to explain to its traditional voter base what it was trying to do. Nor did the CHP manage to attract many swing voters. “If you try to become everything to everyone, your base will become nervous,” she said. “At the end of the day, it is a secular party with some very core ideas.”
Pavey’s mother, Ayşe Önal, a prominent journalist and political commentator, suggests that the CHP should build a new platform and incorporate some Islamic values or speak about religion to gain more votes. The party must move quickly to unify a Turkey increasingly divided between the secular left and Islam, she believes. “Otherwise something terrible is awaiting this country. A terrible cultural war.”
Nonetheless, the CHP cannot forget its secular roots, she said. “They never could attract the Sunni population [that makes up the majority of Turkey]. The cultural gap is a very deep thing.”
Political consultant Necati Ozkan, who worked with the CHP in the 2009 local elections, maintains that the basic approach of the “new CHP” is correct, but that the party began its transformation too late, less than a year before the parliamentary elections. The CHP needed more time to convince a skeptical population that its aim was to help ordinary Turks, he said.
Nonetheless, for its own survival, the CHP must carry on with its political makeover, advises Ozkan. “The transformation must be finished,” he said. “I think this party can’t go back to the way they were before.”
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.