Turkey's First Political Party, CHP: A Retrospective

Last decade has witnessed an unprecedented anti-propaganda against Turkey’s oldest political party: Republican People’s Party (CHP). CHP has not been in power for more than half a century now, and is acting as the main opposition for the past decade. Yet it has been made into a political scapegoat for all governmental shortcomings and failures belonging to the pre-AKP (Justice and Development Party) era, with heavy support from the pro-AKP media and some European observers. CHP has even been accused of having responsibility in AKP’s hold of despotic power, due to its weak parliamentary opposition. Today, attracting a quarter of the country’s electoral vote, CHP deserves a more objective media coverage as a political party that has been very instrumental in the progress of modern Turkey, and plays a very crucial part in her future.

CHP did not grow out of a worker’s movement, nor was it founded as a political force rebelling against an unequal system. On the contrary, CHP established a new republican rule amid the ruins of a collapsing empire that had ruled for six centuries, mostly with non-secular precepts. Hence, the foundation of the Turkish Republic necessitated comprehensive reforms in order to enable the transformation of the “subjects of the sultan” into prototype “secular and modern citizens”. Nearly everything was up for a reform; from the alphabet and clothing to the education system, and the place of religion in public life. It is important to note that these reforms were implemented in a period during which almost no democratic regime prevailed in Europe.

In 1935, the Third Congress of CHP declared six basic principles as the ideological substance of the Party: republicanism, nationalism, populism, etatism, laicism, and revolutionism. Needless to say, these basic principles have been updated since then, and some of them no longer have real political significance, with the exception of “nationalism” and “laicism/secularism”, though their interpretation is much milder today than it was during the pre-1940s single party period. Nevertheless, religious voters continue to perceive laicism as an anti-religious, anti-Islamic concept. Therefore this fact is still an electoral handicap for  CHP, and often used as anti-propaganda by its opponents. Furthermore, the abrupt and almost overnight transformation into a republic obviously created constraints, and the reaction provoked by the strains of reforms during the early years of the Republic has been the main political capital of all conservative right-wing parties, that still reflects on the Kemalist and republican tradition of CHP.

Within a social context of emerging dispute between employers and workers in the mid-1960s, CHP started to evolve into a social democratic political entity. During the next decade, Turkey witnessed intense political and social polarization between left-wing and right-wing groups which led to the military coup of 1980. All political parties were banned, but the coup effectively destroyed the Turkish left, as the country’s new political elite -with Western support behind them- embraced neoliberalism. A new constitution was adopted in 1982 which restricted civil, social and individual liberties and rights, curbed trade unions, and glorified the State. Religious education was made compulsory in primary and secondary schools with this new constitution.


“Center-periphery” polarization should be considered as the most important cleavage shaping the Turkish political landscape. Perceived as the “center”, i.e. as the authority imposing secular republican norms, CHP has always lost elections against the religious right-wing populist stream representing the “periphery”. Since 1960, military interventions which discontinued Turkey’s democratic process were mainly aimed at keeping down the peripheral excesses and restoring the secular republican order. Identified with military interventionism for years, and reputed for its protective secular reflexes and nationalistic views, CHP has recently distanced itself from the armed forces, adopting universal democratic and social democratic norms. CHP has long been accused of being out of touch with masses and people’s daily concerns, while the conservative-rightist parties have always been able to stay close to them, mainly through populism and religion. However, CHP’s new position embraces the periphery, thus transforming Turkish political landscape.

A radical change occurred within CHP during May 2010. Chairman Baykal resigned and the party immediately elected Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The first test of the new leader was the referendum brought forward by AKP in September 2010,  aimed at amending some articles of the constitution. Confronted by the imperativeness to conduct a campaign immediately after his election, Kilicdaroglu made huge efforts; but the performance of the party overall has not been convincing.


Phases of CHP and the Left Wing in Turkish Political History

CHP was conceived in 1923 by the founders of Turkish Republic as a political body for the rapid modernization of the country via crucial and succeeding reforms. Until today, the Party has undergone significant change and even turmoil at some cases. CHP’s path through the recent history of Turkey can be summarized as follows.


Single-party or “state party” period (1923-1946): CHP (Republican People’s Party) was the sole political organisation of the state and was led by the head of state. All governments were formed by CHP. After Atatürk’s death in 1938, ‹smet ‹nönü assumed leadership.


Multi-party period (1946-1960): From 1950, the new DP (Democratic Party) pushed CHP to the opposition. In 1954 and 1957, CHP lost against DP whose authoritarian tendencies provoked a military coup in 1960.


Evolution of the CHP to social democracy (1960-1971): The new constitution paved the way to individual and social freedoms. Justice Party (AP) was founded as the successor of the banned DP. In the mid-1960’s, ‹nönü qualified the ideological position of CHP as being “left of center”. This was the first step towards social democratisation.


Fragmentation of the party system, the coup of 1980 (1971-1980): In 1971, Army brought down the AP Government led by Demirel. Bülent Ecevit, CHP Secretary General, succeeded ‹nönü as the head of CHP. Until 1979, Ecevit led two coalition governments. An overwhelming political and social polarization during the 1970s among political wings led to the Army’s intervention.



Disintegration of the left and rule of the center-right; period of depoliticisation (1980-1995): The new constitution that followed in 1982 brought several restrictions on civil, social and individual liberties. Even though all parties were banned from the political life, Turkish left took the most damage; effectively losing ground as the country’s political elite embraced neo-liberalism. As a consequence, until 1998, Turkey was uninterruptedly ruled by governments led by the center-right.


Recovery and the emergence of AKP (1995-2002): CHP managed to resume in 1993. However, the Turkish center-left continued to be represented by two parties: CHP, led by Baykal, and DSP, led by Ecevit.


In 1998, DSP formed an interim minority government with the support of right-wing DYP and ANAP. But just before the elections in 1999, the leader of the Kurdish PKK, Abdullah Ocalan was captured while Ecevit’s government was still in power. This event gave rise to a nationalistic upheaval that explains the electoral success of Ecevit’s DSP and of the nationalist MHP. One of the left-wing parties, DSP, took power, while CHP could not exceed the 10% threshold.


Turkey became a candidate for EU accession in 1999, under the coalition government led by DSP. This government adopted three major harmonization packages. Nevertheless, Turkish economy went into a deep crisis, as a result of problems accumulated under previous legislatures, and the Turkish currency collapsed in 2001. Kemal Dervis, a reputed right-wing social democrat, was appointed by Ecevit to set up an emergency economic reform programme. Yet, early elections were held in 2002, before the positive effects of the reforms could be discerned. The voters held all coalition parties responsible for the economic disaster and penalized them, and as a result, none could surpass the 10% threshold. The newly established AKP obtained 34% of the votes and formed the government, while CHP assumed the main opposition. Neither party had been represented in the former parliament.


Rule of AKP: Earlier reforms introduced by Dervis and the global economic upswing enabled the AKP government to ensure economic stability and high growth rates after 2002. In March 2003, CHP played a pivotal role in abolishing AKP’s attempt to accommodate the US ambition for a full Turkish military involvement, and Pentagon’s aspiration to open a Turkish front during the invasion of Iraq. In 2007, AKP won a landslide victory, obtaining 60% of the  parliamentary seats with 47% of the electoral vote. CHP gained 21% of the vote, and this time, formed the opposition along with MHP. Latest parliamentary elections, held in June 2011, witnessed an upsurge of AKP’s support reaching 50% as a result of the  recent economic stability.


Nevertheless, AKP failed to obtain 2/3 majority needed to create a new constitution without external parliamentary subscription. CHP has also noticeably increased its vote in comparison with the previous legislature, yet was still confined to its role of main opposition.

About Aydιn Cıngı

Political scientist, founder and former chairman of Social Democracy Foundation