Reforming Republican People

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

Deniz BaykalDeniz 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?

He 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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  1. James,
    Thanks for producing such an interesting piece. As for Baykal, he lacks (and this is critically important in Turkish politics) a populist touch. He doesn’t play well in Anatolia where is seen as a member of the metropolitan elite, obsessed with secularism.
    By the way, he was very reluctant to give up the party leadership in 1999 and had to be forced out.

    In 2002, He didn’t have to persuade “countless former Ecevitites to switch to the CHP”. The Ecevites knew the DSP was about to enter the political morgue. They saw the way the wind was blowing.
    You say that “The CHP was not the party of choice, it was the only choice”. That is absolutely right. The party is immensely disliked by the very same people who have no other option than to vote for it. the same holds for many supporters of the British Labour Party or Conservative Party.
    I don’t think Ismail Cem will return to active politics- he is viewed as another remote, bookish, metropolitan politico by many Turks. He is also suffering from cancer-possibly terminal according to some press reports. The best solution, as many CHP supporters openly admit, would be for President Sezer to take over the helm of the CHP. The President, alas, evinces little interest in taking on that role although it would be his for the taking if he so chose. The future of Turkish politics is bleak….

  2. Interesting you feel the future of Turkish politics is bleak. The future of the left wing might be bleak as long as Baykal stays where he is, yes, but I don’t think the general outlook is quite as hopeless. Unless something remarkable happens in the next eleven months, however, I don’t see the CHP improving on its 2002 position.

    Got to admit, I honestly didn’t know Ismail Cem was suffering from cancer. Not all that sure it’s terminal though, I’m sure I would have heard some inkling. He’s an astute and capable politician though, and if he runs for parliament in 2007 he might just push for leadership. He’s too shrewd to do anything before the election, though.

  3. The problem with the left is not merely tied up with Baykal’s(admittedly) poor and lacklustre leadership. In terms of party organisation and members, the CHP no longer exists as a functioning, campaigning political party in much of Turkey especially in the south-east and along the Black Sea coast of the country. Opinion polls have consistently ranked the CHP on an 18-19% share of the vote since the last general election in Nov 2002. That is an amazingly poor showing. All in all, the CHP desperately needs to forge an electoral alliance with the much more left-leaning SHP led by Murat Karayalcin and Ecevit’s DSP. The DSP, against all odds, has actually staged something of a political revival in the last 1-2 years with opinions showing the party on 6-7% of the vote. Such an alliance, although fraught with difficulties, would lead to a centre-left bloc coming out first in the polls at the next election. It would also mean adieu to Baykal.
    As for Ismail Cem, he spent the whole period between Nov 2002-October 2004 in the US seeking cancer treatment. He returned there earlier this year where he spent another couple of months.

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