Turkey’s Main Opposition Needs Reform Before Conducting Foreign Policy

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Kılıçdaroğlu (center) sits on stage at the Kenney Auditorium. (Hamit Boyraz)
Kılıçdaroğlu (center) sits on stage at the Kenney Auditorium. (Hamit Boyraz)

Assistant Editor at SAIS Washington

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP,) visited Washington this past week. He kicked off his visit with a talk at Brookings, followed by meetings with think tankers, a white house official as well as academics and journalists. His last stop was the SAIS Kenney Auditorium, where he gave a talk entitled “Towards a new Turkish Foreign Policy.”

First, a brief primer on Turkish politics. The CHP is Turkey’s founding party and set the country on its western-oriented path after the declaration of the Republic in 1923. It held the first free and fair elections in 1950, which it lost. The party has not been able to win a parliamentary majority ever since, nor has it sustained coalitions for very long. It is still however, seen as the torch bearer of Turkey’s state ideology and identifies strongly with a French-style rollback of religion from the public sphere. Up until the last decade, the CHP was the party of the establishment, the business and military elite.

By the 1980s, a generation of young Islamist politicians challenged the status quo. Several incarnations of this movement eventually yielded the Justice and Development (AK) party, which took power in 2002. With every election since, the AK party fine-tuned its political message of mild Islamism and free enterprise, its leader Tayyip Erdoğan assuming an almost Anatolian version of the Reagan/Thatcher leadership style.

The CHP is trying to close the gap, and they see foreign policy as an area they can push. They recently set up an office in Washington and Kılıçdaroğlu has, unusually for an opposition politician, been making foreign visits. The chairman’s visit to Washington for example, comes after a hiatus of 37 years.

The beltway’s Turkey watchers will have noted a stark contrast to the way bombastic AK party politicians roll into town. The former bureaucrat is soft-spoken, always on time and doesn’t stray from his talking points. Those however, were a clear reminder of his limits. The chairman joined the chorus of ridicule on the administration’s unfortunately named “zero problems with neighbors” policy, pointing to Ankara’s markedly problematic relations with the capitols around it. He failed to specify how he would have maintained good relations with a war-torn Syria, or the coup government in Egypt. The questions kept on coming.

What did he think of the rift with Israel after the Mavi Marmara incident? Simple, Turkey should mend relations with Israel but support the idea of an independent Palestinian state. How about Iraq and the Kurds? Turkey should stop trying to go over Baghdad’s head to access Kurdish energy resources in the North. Who needs energy anyways? Listening to him, you got the impression that foreign policy really isn’t that hard, especially if you stop doing it.

In a strange way, that really was the key. A phrase Kılıçdaroğlu used throughout his Washington visits is telling in this regard – he prefaced his sentences with “With a CHP rule”, meaning that the party would win majority in parliament in the foreseeable future. But the assumption of a CHP victory should sound odd to anyone familiar with Turkish politics. The party received 26 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections, while the ruling AK party got a whopping 50 percent. What is more, the CHP votes are concentrated geographically and demographically, meaning that they are probably constrained to a ceiling around the 25th percentile. That means that the CHP has not only not conducted foreign policy in decades, but that it hasn’t even been close to facing that pressure.

To his credit, Kılıçdaroğlu realized that he needed party reform to ever stand a chance in national elections. He coined the term “new CHP” and kicked out some of the old guard, but the party’s center of gravity remains with the illiberal and intellectually bankrupt elite of the 1990s. When parliament passed a law allowing its members to wear headscarves, the CHP still went through painful deliberations deciding not to boycott their headscarf-wearing colleagues.

It is clear that Kılıçdaroğlu should transform the face of the party, maybe change up the “six arrows” that form his platform. The only problem is that his party’s core will not move.

That was perhaps most evident when looking at the crowd at SAIS during the talk. Well-dressed Turkish-American men and women, many of whom appeared to be well into their retirements, took up a sizable chunk of the seats. They cheered on cues such as when Kılıçdaroğlu said that he would not let Turkey slide back into the “dark ages”, a thinly veiled criticism of Islamic politics. Many were brought under the impression that the AK party was only elected by ballot rigging and repeatedly asked Kılıçdaroğlu what he was going to do to stop it. He must have felt at least slightly uncomfortable with the question, since Turkey’s elections in the past decade have been labeled as free and fair by major international bodies like the EU.

The starkest reminder of a Turkey past came when a SAIS professor raised the question of the Armenian issue – he was interrupted mid-sentence by a guttural sound shouting “lies!” Ancient reflexes were at work. Kılıçdaroğlu remained calm and let the professor finish. He then recited the “let the historians decide” answer that all Turkish politicians abroad and diplomats must know by heart.

The Washington crowd is surely not representative of the CHP’s base back home, but maybe it isn’t too far off. Regardless, it was painful to see a man torn between his party’s legacy and the reformer he so much wants to be. And his country does need him. Despite the governing AK party’s many successes, it is spiraling out of control. Its education policy is an unmitigated disaster, the press is under fire and income distribution is widening.

So the CHP’s efforts should be commended, but their contributions to foreign policy ring hollow. They are simply too far away from the pressures that yield responsible action on that front. Their first order of business should be to win elections, and for that, they need deep reforms in their party. Until then Kılıçdaroğlu will unfortunately be little more than a tourist in foreign capitals.

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