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Turkey’s Political Parties on the Centenary of the Republic: A Historical Overview and Assessment-1

Turkey will celebrate the centenary of the Republic on October 29, 1923. Today, one of the most significant reasons behind the problems Turkey is facing is the inability to achieve a truly democratic regime in reality.

THE PARTY THAT CONSUMED ATATÜRK’S LEGACY: CHP

In Turkey, the Republican regime was established by the People’s Party and later became the Republican People’s Party by adding “republic” to its name. CHP governed Turkey as a single-party regime from 1923 to 1946. The fusion of the state and the party had reached such a point that between 1935 and 1939, the Minister of the Interior became the general secretary of CHP, and the governors also became the provincial chairmen of CHP.

CHP was the party of Atatürk, who “liberated the country from enemy occupation and established the new state.” Through this party, Gazi Pasha governed the country, used it to convey the reforms to the public, and only CHP was represented in the parliament. Among the opposition parties, the Progressive Republican Party was eliminated first, and the founders of the party, Kazım Karabekir, Ali Fuat Pasha (Cebesoy), and their friends, narrowly escaped execution.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk organized the second attempt at opposition himself, but when the party (Free Republic Party) gained popularity among the public, he was forced to disband it. After that, there was no such attempt while Atatürk was alive.

After the Eternal Leader, İsmet İnönü, who became both the leader of CHP and the President of the Republic, continued the single-party regime until 1945. Although elections were held in Turkey between 1923 and 1945, they were two-tiered, and the public did not have the opportunity to directly elect their representatives. Only CHP participated in the elections.

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In 1945, İnönü promised to transition to multi-party political life to be part of the Western alliance. Another reason for this development was to reduce the reaction arising from the pressure and economic difficulties that the people had been experiencing for years. The 1946 elections, known as “rigged elections” in history, resulted in CHP’s continued rule.

The years 1946-1950 were the years when the Democratic Party (DP), an alternative party, was taught what it should be and what it should not be. DP was founded by former CHP deputies who had already left the party, and some even argue that they were “forced to leave.” In 1947, İnönü opened the door for DP with the July 12th Declaration, but he also set the boundaries of Turkish politics.

CHP lost its twenty-seven-year rule with the 1950 elections and has never been able to regain single-party power since then. However, the party always engaged in politics “for the sake of the system’s security.” It accused right-wing parties of compromising secularism, acted as the spokesperson for the military, which had been the determinant of Turkish politics for years.

İnönü’s statement in the Turkish Grand National Assembly during the process leading to the May 27th coup, “I cannot even save you,” was a harbinger of the execution of Menderes and his associates. İnönü continued this role against AP leader Demirel until he left the chairmanship of CHP in 1973. The highest vote share CHP achieved after May 27th was 36.73% in the 1961 elections.

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FROM ECEVİT TO BAYKAL

Bülent Ecevit, who took İnönü’s place, managed to form a government three times between 1973 and 1980, achieving success in reaching the public. These were the years when “Karaoğlan” was written on the mountains and stones, and CHP reached a 41% vote share in 1977. However, the party was closed with the 1980 coup, and left-wing politics continued under different party names.

Ecevit, who became the DSP leader in 1999-2002, had some disappointments in some respects. Despite using the term “Anatolian Islam,” he couldn’t tolerate a veiled female member of parliament and demanded that her “limits be defined.” Although he had mentioned the concept of “counter-guerrilla” for the first time in the 1970s, he chose to do nothing about it during the 1999-2002 period.

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Bulent Ecevit

When CHP re-emerged, it became Deniz Baykal’s party. A party that pursued politics entirely based on “secularism,” it became the spokesperson for the “deep state” with its tense politics during the 2007 presidential elections. With the Republican rallies, CHP brought tension to the streets, but in all subsequent elections, it could only become the second-largest party.

Under Baykal’s leadership, CHP, which had fallen below the electoral threshold in 1999, managed to receive around 20% of the votes in 2002 and 2007. Interestingly, Baykal, the “spokesperson for secularism,” played an important role in lifting the ban on AKP’s leader, Tayyip Erdoğan.

There are two possible explanations for Baykal clearing the way for Erdoğan. The first could be that he was subjected to blackmail and had to support the process. Given his departure from the CHP leadership due to a tape scandal, this theory seems reasonable.

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Deniz Baykal

The second possibility could be that he fulfilled the desires of the “deep state.” Considering Erdoğan’s transformation of Turkey into a Middle Eastern state instead of a European one in the following period, this theory also seems reasonable.

Furthermore, Baykal’s role after the June 7, 2015 elections in preventing the formation of a coalition government and offering the presidency of the Turkish Grand National Assembly to the AKP supports this thesis. Despite having to leave the chairmanship, his continued role as a member of parliament until his death can also be interpreted as a sign that Baykal’s roles should not be underestimated.

FROM GANDHISM TO RETIREMENT: KILIÇDAROĞLU

Following Baykal’s departure from the leadership due to a tape scandal, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was once the Director General of the Social Security Institution (SGK) and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality mayor candidate in the 2009 elections, became the leader of CHP. In his first election as party leader, CHP became the second-largest party with a 25.98% vote share.

Kılıçdaroğlu pursued a policy of opening up the party to the right during his leadership. However, he could not prevent Erdoğan from becoming the President of the Republic in the 2014 presidential elections, and he also failed to form a coalition government after the June 7, 2015 elections that replaced the AKP government. In subsequent elections, CHP could not surpass a 25% vote share.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s greatest success during his tenure can be considered the winning of the Ankara and Istanbul municipal mayoralties, which had been under the control of the Welfare Party (Refah) and AKP for years, with the support of the Good Party (İYİP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in 2019. On the other hand, his biggest failure was undoubtedly losing the 2023 elections, in which the people, tired of the AKP-Erdoğan government, had high expectations.

The worst effect of this election is the disappointment resulting from the fact that the expectation of ending the Erdoğan regime was not fulfilled, partly due to the poor management of the election process by the opposition, led by CHP itself. Even when looking at figures such as Davutoğlu, Ali Babacan, and Temel Karamollaoğlu, who were with Kılıçdaroğlu, it was clear that having great hopes was a mistake. However, the 2023 elections, which were still a hope for the “dissatisfied public,” were handed over to Erdoğan due to the mistakes made.

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Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Furthermore, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have taken on a position that legitimizes Erdoğan’s politics, just like Baykal. Although he initially had different rhetoric, his complete adoption of the July 15th narrative, his silence on the acceptance of the Supreme Election Council (YSK) that “unstamped ballots are valid” in the 2017 Constitutional Amendment referendum, despite its constitutional illegality, and his refusal to step down as party leader after the election loss continue to sustain this process. The final step on the path from Gandhiism to retirement will likely be the re-election of the Ankara and Istanbul metropolitan municipalities to the AKP.

As of today, CHP is the party of a 20% minority that is sensitive to secularism and sees itself as “Atatürkist.” It can be argued that the party has no goal of coming to power, even as a coalition partner, in the last thirty years. The party plays a role that legitimizes the increasingly “authoritarian regime” of Turkey in its opposition position. Thanks to the municipal administrations it won, especially with the support of the coastal regions, it continues to exist by taking a share from rent-seeking politics.

It is difficult to say that CHP, which claims to be a “left-wing party,” prioritizes “human rights and democracy.” The characteristics that the strongest party against Erdoğan possesses are these qualities, which have allowed the regime to become even more authoritarian and not to question arbitrariness on the centenary of the Republic.

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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