Two challenges for the secularists

Published 03.11.2014 02:26

The Republican People's Party, or CHP, organized a weekend retreat on Nov. 1-2, 2014, to discuss recent developments and, having failed to meet their targets in the March 2014 local elections and the August 2014 presidential contest, devise strategies for the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the annual event, Sencer Ayata, a political scientist who currently serves as deputy chairman, presented the findings of a recent study on electoral behavior to a large group of party elites. The findings were hardly surprising for close observers of Turkish politics. The party, Ayata claimed, could potentially receive 44 percent of the vote. "We must attain ideological superiority [over the conservatives] to win over voters with different backgrounds," he said. Assuming, of course, that the main opposition party will be able to reach out to two distinct constituencies with completely different priorities – ultra-secularists and the Kurdish Left - at the same time.

Hours before the event, Emine Ülker Tarhan, an ultra-secularist member of Parliament and former minority whip, resigned from her party, citing the leadership's failure to draw lessons from the ill-fated presidential election campaign as well as "inconsistent remarks" about the country's military involvement in Syria. (Having staunchly opposed military action against the Assad regime for years, the Republicans recently called on the government to introduce an additional military authorization bill to interfere in Kobani.) "I resign from the CHP, which I had joined with great hope, in order to not become part of wrong and weak policies with neither the hope nor the determination to come to power," she wrote. Tarhan's strongly-worded resignation letter echoed the sentiments of several hundred local representatives who sided with Muharrem İnce, an outspoken Kemalist, against incumbent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in September's race for party chairman – people who have been deeply unhappy about what they regard as the leadership's (admittedly unsuccessful) strategy to distance itself from core ideological principles in order to expand the party's voter base. When Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu recently made a controversial call to assist Kurdish fighters in Kobani, therefore, the leadership was engaging in an unprofitable bargain with Kurdish radicals.

Meanwhile, the CHP will ostensibly have a hard time penetrating the Kurdish voter base that has long been divided between the AK Party and its center-right predecessors and political parties affiliated with the Kurdish political movement. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, the party received just 2.18 percent of the vote in Diyarbakır. After three years of revisionism, in the 2014 presidential election, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, whose campaign was co-sponsored by the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party among others, won merely 2.35 percent. The situation looked roughly the same in other predominantly Kurdish electoral districts. As such, the CHP winning over the Kurdish Left seemed like a long shot if not entirely out of the question. It remains also unclear whether or not the CHP will manage to tap into the Kurdish vote merely because its leadership had a seeming (and unconvincing) change of heart on key issues.

The deputy chairman's ideas are worth entertaining, and the main opposition party's eagerness to become more competitive (instead of appealing to extra-parliamentary forces) reflects the strength of Turkey's electoral institutions. The 44 percent hypothesis, however, complete ignores the vast ideological differences between Kemalist hardliners, moderates and Kurdish radicals and mistakenly reduces their political preferences to their secular leanings.

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