Reasons for CHP’s Past Electoral Defeats; Paths Leading to Success

Since the 1970s, social democracy has been steadily losing votes, both in Europe and in Turkey, with each decade proving more difficult than the previous one. Obviously CHP’s social democratic politics are very strongly affected by domestic conditions. However, its social democratic understanding depends to a large extent on the concepts generated by European social democracy as well. Therefore, electoral reverses of Turkish social democracy and the party representing it arise from specific national conditions, as well as Europe-wide trends. The negative public perception is partly connected to the CHP’s past as a “state party,” and to its actions during minority or coalition governments in the 1970s. CHP is generally believed to be incompetent in economic affairs, and is perceived to be “performing” in redistribution but “inefficient” for growth. In fact, CHP has had no opportunity to form a majority government since 1950. Therefore, there is no way to assess how CHP would have performed if it had had the opportunity to govern. Nevertheless, CHP must concede that it has stayed far from the daily concerns of voters during its long period of opposition. Another important reason for its electoral defeats was related to the leadership issue. Former leader Deniz Baykal was a highly unpopular politician; his authoritarian manner discouraged general participation and prevented democratic development within the party.

The working class generated by late industrialization in Turkey always had limited power in electoral terms. The majority of the population was employed in the agricultural sector until the 1970s and has never really displayed “working class” reflexes, having voted mostly for right-wing conservative parties. That has been an evident electoral handicap for a party espousing welfare state principles. Since the 1970s, agriculture has started to lose ground to industry, while from the 1980s the industrial sector declined in comparison to services. Advances in technology have allowed skilled labor to gain predominance over unskilled labor, so the new prototype worker is quite different from the previous one. He does not reject change, provided that it does not involve cultural and socio-economic upheaval. Thus, any social democratic party aspiring to power needs to accommodate itself to the new “conservative-modernÓ working-middle class, which is an important and dynamic constituent of the population. This class does not comply with abrupt change and risk-taking. CHP has failed to get its votes because it has not designed its politics appropriately. However, the “new CHP” has started to show respect for religious and cultural values and accepts the market economy, provided that the “welfare state” is not overlooked.

In fact, the competition between left and right no longer represents a strong divergence, as was the case until the 1980s, and is generally to be found in the political centerground. As a result, the political space has narrowed between center-right and the center-left parties. In some cases there are no noticeable differences in terms of economic and social policies between social democratic and conservative parties.

Therefore, numerous workers no longer feel protected by CHP. In countries which lack deeply rooted socialist tradition, social democrats differentiate themselves through specific features. Thus, CHP has started more and more emphasiz its protective role regarding the Republic’s secular base. One could distinguish the government led by Bülent Ecevit (1999-2002), a social democrat, from the first AKP government (2002-2007) only from its more nationalistic approaches and its extreme care for secularism. Besides, both implemented exactly the same economic policies. Baykal, the former chairman of the HP and leader of opposition, also based his stance on nationalism and secularism, without substantial criticism of AKP’s neoliberal politics. That obviously narrowed the space of social democrats in Turkey.

An immense problem for social democrats is arising today from the worldwide dominance of the neoliberal discourse. The neoliberal order has effectively banned equality and solidarity, the classic values of social democracy. The first civil government in Turkey after the coup of 1980 was led by Özal, a convinced neoliberal technocrat who ruled until the 1990s. Neoliberal indoctrination in Turkey started with his rule and continued under right-wing governments in the 1990s and 2000s. CHP has resisted the temptation of neoliberal discourse as far as possible, and still criticizes “unnecessary” privatizations and the reluctance of the government to intervene in favor of the working class in certain socio-economic issues.

Social democracy must refuse the worldwide dominance of the neoliberal discourse and promote its own values. Its critical attitude with regard to consumerism and the model of a hedonistic society will reinforce its credibility. If the space has narrowed between conservatives and social democrats, this is because the “right” has no longer been able to resist to the social pressure exerted by the “left.” Therefore, social politics is of crucial importance for social democrats. The new CHP promises that its progressive politics in Turkey are aimed at easing poverty today, while also preventing its emergence in the future.

Neoliberal concepts are neither appropriate for conciliating economic competitiveness with social cohesion, nor for implementing efficient economic policies. State intervention in favor of the working class and marginalized sections is important not only in the fight for social justice, but also for establishing a more rationally-functioning and efficient society. Social democrats in Europe and in Turkey have to stabilize and reduce the gap between high and low income categories through tax regulation. At this stage, the most important thing for Turkish social democrats is to rethink the role of the state, including ways to regulate the markets. Concerning social policy, CHP will be profiting for several decades to come – in contrast to European social democrats – because current developments in the demographic structure favor Turkey.

Social democracy has not been able to react efficiently against the negative effects of globalization. In many countries, including Turkey. Social democrats have displayed divergent views on the matter. Many social sections – such as the new poor of the suburbs, the marginalized, the working age retired, the at-risk youth, and even skilled labor employed in uncompetitive sectors – feel threatened by the new challenges of a globalized world. They feel insufficiently protected by social democratic parties. On the other hand, well-educated social democratic elites which have traditionally rejected conservatism but do not feel threatened by the effects of globalization are increasingly turning toward liberalism. In both cases, social democracy is losing out. This evolution obviously has led to a further weakening of CHP.

CHP must also pay attention to the dynamic social sections that are transforming the socio-political landscape with their post-industrial requests. Well-educated young constituents tend to reject the authoritarian structures of traditional political parties and adhere rather to a sort of apolitical liberalism, focusing on the sustainability of economic growth and ideas of social justice. A social democratic party could easily and naturally attract such ascending social categories, since “equality” and “sustainability” i.e. “social policy” and “environmentalism” are interrelated issues. CHP must take into consideration their self-expression values and post-material sensibilities, and encourage participation, commitment, and individual engagement. In this way, young people may get interested and increasingly involved in politics. But they need to detect a way of being able to make change happen, through CHP.

The most dramatic worldwide consequence of multiculturalism due to immigration is the loss of the sense of solidarity. The combination of a large-scale unemployment with an immigrant labor force inevitably gives rise to populist and xenophobic parties. Similarly, domestic emigration in Turkey has reached considerable proportions since the 1970s. Huge masses have moved from the east to the west of the country and from rural areas to the towns. As a result, an unqualified young labor force has agglomerated in suburban areas, especially around big cities in the west and in the coastal regions. Immigrants have not tended to come from other countries, as in Europe. Instead, less educated, culturally different migrants, overwhelmingly of Kurdish origin, have “invaded” cities inhabited by more educated citizens. It is this that has given rise to a “multicultural” Turkish society. Domestic emigration is still going on, but to a lesser extent. The suburbs and the migrants should thus have been fertile soil for a social democratic party. But up to now CHP has been unable to accomplish this political mission, with all votes concerned going to the conservative AKP in 2002, 2007, and 2011.

Turkey’s per capita income is still only around USD 10,000, and unemployment rates especially affecting young people are high. Regional disparities make the pauperism striking and distressing, particularly in the east and southeast. Until today, the CHP has been physically and electorally absent from these areas, which are overwhelmingly inhabited by the Kurdish people. This is because of its uncompromising and nationalistic state party attitude regarding the Kurdish issue. These citizens have therefore had no political choice but the Kurdish nationalism of the ethnic party, or the Islamism of the AKP. CHP’s recent proposals concerning the Kurdish issue will improve the image of the party and open the way to a solution, thus enhancing its electoral chances in the region.

About Aydιn Cıngı

Political scientist, founder and former chairman of Social Democracy Foundation