The Republican People’s Party (CHP) was stablished in 1923 by the founder of modern Turkey and the charismatic leader of the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He was a hugely important figure because of the modernizing reforms that he instigated in politics, economics, culture and law. Although CHP enjoyed being in single-party government for a long period of time, in contemporary Turkey it has faced criticism for not being able to reform its policies and renew the “secularist” and “nationalist” principles that form the basis of its program. CHP’s reforms aiming to create a pro-western and secular state from a pious and uneducated Muslim society proved successful in terms of increasing the legitimacy of the republic, as opposed to the sultanate and the caliphate-based monarchy. However, the party was unable to solve three important problems during its period of single-party government: civil-military relations, the Kurdish question, and the debate over secularism and Islamism.
CHP has faced significant criticism for not being able to reform its policies and renew “secularism” and “nationalism”.
Following the transition to multi-party democracy in Turkey, CHP positioned itself as a center-left social democratic party, but continued to cherish the characteristics of Kemalism. Throughout the history of modern Turkey, CHP has often found itself in “alliance” with the military. The problematic nature of civil-military relations in Turkey and the guardianship role of the Turkish Armed Forces led to two military coups (May 27, 1960, and Sept. 12, 1980), a similar memorandum (March 12, 1971), and a number of extraordinary events such as the Feb. 28, 1997 process. Civil-military relations seem to have reached a new point of equilibrium in favor of the civilian authorities. in recent years. The current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been accused of being motivated by revanchism and revenge in this process. This is due to the harsh legal practices meted out to Turkish generals and soldiers accused of attempting to engineer coups against civilian governments. Currently, 58 generals and admirals are on trial facing charges of plotting coups against AKP.
The Kurdish question, on the other hand, broke out violently after the Sept.12, 1980 coup, and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism resulted in the killing of more than 30,000 Turkish citizens. The Kurdish question still remains unresolved, although the current government has made many important legal and cultural reforms and openings in this field in the last decade.
The third problem, around Islamism-secularism, still constitutes the main fault line in Turkish politics, and has always been fertile ground for populist Islamist leaders throughout republican history. CHP’s most important weakness seems to be in this Islamism-secularism divide, as the party has often wrongfully been considered to be the political establishment, aiming to spread atheism among the pious segments of the society.
Although CHP’s main ideological source has always been Kemalism, which is the modernization paradigm of Turkish Republic, the party has shown some success in reforming its ideology and renewing itself. In the late 1950s, the party refreshed itself with modern liberal ideas and became the primary actor in the preparation of the progressive 1961 constitution. Toward the mid-1970s, the CHP successfully transformed itself into a social democratic “mass” party under the charismatic leadership of Bülent Ecevit. The party developed many concrete projects and policy suggestions, although these efforts never turned into accomplishments due to the violent nature of Turkish politics in the 1970s.
During the 1980s and 1990s, CHP almost completely gave up its socialist-leaning economic tendencies of the 1970s, and instead became a social democratic-liberal party mainly focused on protecting the secular and democratic nature of the republic and Turkey’s integration with the western world. However, the party’s problem in reaching out to conservative segments as well as Kurds continued, and the CHP’s voting spectrum ranged between just 15 and 25 percent of Turkish society, mostly consisting of better educated middle-class people who attached themselves to Kemalism more than social democracy.
In recent years, CHP has again found itself on the verge of an ideological change, with the changing of its leader. Although the party seems to make different but diffident steps toward changing the party base and organizational scheme, it shows signs of unwillingness to give up Kemalism, due to the rising fears of authoritarian Islamism under AKP rule. CHP is thus trying to find a new way to position itself between Kemalism and social democracy, and is often perceived by Turkish people as a party struggling with its own internal problems, rather than one giving inspiration to the “mass.” The party is obviously in need of a new policy synthesizing Kemalism and social democracy, as well as a strong leadership that can manage this process. This can be done only if the party opens its doors to young, untainted, educated people, coming from all parts of society. It should also abandon its elitist and militarist, but at the same time strangely middle-class, image, by coming into contact with all segments of Turkish society, including business circles, workers’ syndicates, and religious groups.