Turkish secular opposition softening on Islam


Marked out by distance from the Muslim beliefs of much of the electorate, the CHP now appears more people-friendly, writes NICHOLAS BIRCHin Istanbul

THE FOUNDER of Turkey’s secular republic and simultaneous standard-bearer of its authoritarian values, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, has long appeared elitist, anti-religious and unelectable.

But there are growing signs that some CHP members, fed up with decades in opposition, are struggling to loosen the dead grip of ideology on the party, in an attempt at modernisation that analysts describe as vital for the country’s democratic development.

After years spent pumping up fear about political Islam, CHP head Deniz Baykal began campaigning to capture the religious vote last November, even going as far as pinning party badges on women dressed in the black robes characteristic of Turkey’s most conservative Muslims.

The “headscarf initiative” has been followed by openings on Turkey’s European Union accession process, which CHP has appeared until recently to oppose, and – in a break with the party’s long-standing support for a military solution to an ongoing separatist war – the Kurdish issue.

Ask analysts and CHP voters where the idea for a more people-friendly CHP came from, and you usually get a two-word answer: Gursel Tekin. This is the half-Kurdish 44-year-old who became CHP’s Istanbul chairman 18 months ago and who increased the party’s vote by 10 per cent at local elections on March 29th, narrowly losing to a popular government candidate.

“A CHP victory would have been a huge coup,” says Adil Gur, a leading pollster. “Win Istanbul and you are half-way to winning Turkey.” Nationally, CHP votes went up by just 2 per cent.

Sitting in his central Istanbul office, Tekin remains modest about his success: “We did what political parties are supposed to do – we went out and listened to people.” Analysts say his activism was strengthened by the widespread perception that he is more relaxed about Islam than many of his colleagues.

While CHP played a leading role in blocking government efforts to end a ban on headscarves in universities last year, he supports an end to the ban. And while some CHP supporters see the headscarf, worn by roughly two-thirds of Turkish women, as a symbol of a medieval mentality, Tekin insists “the vast majority of Turks have no problem with secularism”.

“If a woman with a headscarf comes and says I want to join the party, what do you say? Come in. It’s a simple as that,” he says. “A party that fears the people of its country has no future.”

Tekin’s success has led some to describe him as a secular Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister whose rise to power began when he became Istanbul mayor in 1994.

Both are from humble backgrounds. Erdogan doubled his party’s votes by changing it from a traditional Islamist party to a centre-right one. Tekin knows CHP must extend beyond its educated urban power base if it is to win more than 20 per cent of the national vote.

Political commentator Mahmut Ovur thinks Tekin is a great chance for the party and the country. “CHP must change, because Turkey cannot change unless CHP changes. This is the party of the state. CHP plus army plus bureaucracy equals 51 per cent of the vote, they say. Even if it is not in power, [CHP] behaves as though it is.”

A political adviser to TUSIAD, Turkey’s most powerful business lobby, Soli Ozel agrees. “The CHP doesn’t do much positive, but it has shown an immense ability to block Turkey’s development,” he says.

Yet changing a party which identifies itself with a state ideology looks set to be trickier than modernising Islamism.

CHP leader Deniz Baykal’s willingness to adopt policies begun at a local level by Gursel Tekin is a good start, analysts say. But the initiatives are unlikely to be seen as credible by the public as long as the party politburo remains the preserve of aging ex-diplomats cut off from the street.

“The party desperately needs a new face, fresh blood,” says Adil Gur.

“The local elections provided a perfect opportunity for a change.” Baykal so far has remained deaf to calls for modernisers like Tekin to be promoted inside the party. Political scientist Hakan Yilmaz fears his perseverance with the old management team is a sign that the party “has decided that 20 per cent plus or minus two points is enough: a lot of power and no responsibility, the best of both worlds.”

In a rapidly changing Turkey, however, it is far from clear whether CHP can continue to garner even that level of support with its old policies.

The military’s slow retreat from politics has made it less easy for the party, which supported army-led campaigns against an Islamist government in 1997 and the current government in 2007, to sit back and let the generals make the political moves.

In the run-up to local elections, Tekin angrily criticised the politburo for meddling with the local running of the party, and freely admits he would like to see changes in the party hierarchy.

As the weeks slip by and hopes raised by CHP’s Istanbul success begin to be forgotten, analysts and CHP modernisers increasingly fear that the party’s perestroika may have been put off for another day.

“For the first time in decades, the Republican People’s Party had a politician capable of turning it into a party of the people rather than of the state”, says Ayse Onal, a prominent journalist.

“What a pity to throw that opportunity away.”