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Reforming Republican People

Turkey’s opposition party must change its leader if it wants any shot at government next year

Deniz BaykalTurkey’s opposition party must change its leader if it wants any shot at government next year

Deniz Baykal is an excellent director. He must be. He is a man who can craft, and weld, and manoeuvre. Surely that makes him excellent politician. How else can you explain the 13-year leadership of Turkey’s most sacred political party by a man so incredibly disliked?

Deniz Baykal was only the fourth leader of the 69-year-old Republican People’s Party (CHP) when he first took the helm in 1992. He resigned twice, first in the wake of an impending merger with the Social Democrat People’s Party (SHP) and later after an embarrassing showing in the 1999 elections. But in each case he returned to defeat his successor. It amounts to a cumulative thirteen years as leader.

In the summer of 2002, when hordes of MPs resigned Bülent Ecevit’s governing party and triggered yet another crisis in the Turkish left, Mr Baykal saw the opportunity to rebuild his position. He persuaded countless former Ecevitites to switch to the CHP, knocking the wind out of Ismail Cem’s attempts to establish a new political force on the left wing. He also scored a big coup in Kemal Derviş, the man credited with resuscitating Turkey after the latest economic crisis, by snatching him away from Mr Cem’s clutches.

His tactics worked. When the election came, the country was far too distracted by the prospect of a single party government – and an Islamist one, at that – to notice the CHP’s showing. Ataturk’s party was back with 178 seats. It was their best result in thirty years.

The result was a personal victory for Mr Baykal, propelling him into a position more influential than when he was deputy prime minister a decade ago. He had become the de facto leader of the secular Turkish left in the face of a resurgent religious threat. He is no longer that leader.

Mr Baykal’s failure is partly because he is not an endearing man. He is staggeringly unpopular, especially among secularist Turks who say they vote for him because he is the only viable challenger to the AKP. He is a man driven by his ideology, unable to empathise with the average voter. He is, in fact, a member of that “old guard” of Turkish politics – among the likes of Bülent Ecevit, Mesut Yılmaz and Tansu Çiller – that was purged in the 2002 election. The reason Mr Baykal survived is because he is not as well-known.

But there is more to it than personality. If Mr Baykal’s pre-election resurgence was shrewd and calculated, his post-election performance was rash and tactless. He failed to recognise that his party’s return to parliament was not from an electorate endorsing his policies, but from part of an electorate worried about an Islamic future. The CHP was not the party of choice, it was the only choice.

Deniz Baykal has done little since to consolidate his party’s position. He has not pushed hard enough to unify the Turkish centre-left. He has not made a serious attempt to endear himself to the voting public. He has even lost his badge as leader of Turkey’s Kemalists. That title is now shared by Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the president who has vetoed more parliamentary laws than any other in Turkish history, and General Yaşar Büyükanıt, the chief of the army.

The CHP has paid for Mr Baykal’s mistakes already. His party performed badly in the 2004 local elections, losing council seats nationwide and barely holding onto traditional strongholds like Ankara’s Çankaya district. Mr Baykal, however, refused to accept a defeat, prompting a bemused Radikal headline: “CHP wins victory – apparently”.

The downward trend looks set to continue, too. Opinion polls ahead of next November’s general election all suggest the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) will return to parliament. But the resurgent nationalist vote, it seems, will not be at the expense of the governing AKP, but of the CHP.

Deniz Baykal has to go, and he has to go soon. But who to come in his place?

There have been mutterings of President Sezer joining active politics. There is, though, a far more sensible replacement in Ismail Cem, who still commands a certain degree of respect in Turkey. He joined the CHP two years ago after his new party experiment failed. When it comes to dismissing Mr Baykal, however, the only solution might be to field him as the compromise successor – to Mr Sezer.

Image © Copyright Circassian Canada, 2006.

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