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December 21, 2010
Summary: The Republican People’s Party needed to choose a new leader after the embarrassing departure of its president, Deniz Baykal. In the absence of other credible candidates, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s name was put forth by the secretary general of the party and adopted by an overwhelming majority at an extraordinary party convention in May 2010. It soon became evident that Kılıçdaroğlu had to gain control of his party. A majority of the members of the party assembly were more loyal to the party secretary general who had managed Kılıçdaroğlu’s election than to the man they had actually elected as party chief, and they constituted a veto group against the policy changes that their new leader contemplated. The extraordinary convention to elect new members to the party assembly that took place in December 2010 has ended as a total victory for the party president. It is evident that new faces will now dominate the party’s administrative bodies. This convention may constitute an important or, as some have suggested, historical step in building an ordinary social democratic party, which the Turkish political system still lacks. Whether it will succeed in doing that, only time will tell.
Building an Ordinary Party by Extraordinary Means
by Ilter Turan
On December 18, 2010, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) held an extraordinary convention to elect members to the party assembly and the party executive committee. Although it may appear unusual that a party renew the members of its highest decision-making bodies outside of regular party conventions, the conditions that necessitated this particular gathering were unique. The party had had to choose a new leader after the embarrassing departure of its president, Deniz Baykal, (see “Party Changes Leader, Can Leader Change Party?,” İlter Turan, On Turkey, June 14, 2010). Although it had been evident for some time that the electoral prospects of the RPP had not been promising under his leadership, forcing him out was almost impossible, as also is often the case in other Turkish political parties (See “Party Oligarchy: Why Turkish Political Parties Fail to Change Their Leaders,” İlter Turan, On Turkey, November 10, 2010). When the need to elect a new leader presented itself, there existed no pool from among whom the party members could pick their new leader. The person that was eventually named, Mr. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was a retired bureaucrat who had been elected deputy from the RPP during the 2002 and 2007 elections. He had proved himself to be a hard worker and a determined and effective campaigner in 2009 when he was nominated as the RPP candidate for the mayor of metropolitan Istanbul. His vote tally was considerably above both the national and the provincial average of RPP in this local election. In the absence of other credible candidates, his name was put forth by the secretary general of the party, Önder Sav, and adopted by an overwhelming majority at an extraordinary party convention in May 2010. At the time of his election, Kılıçdaroğlu judged that, with national elections at most a year away and possibly sooner, it would be prudent that he prepare his party for the oncoming challenge. It soon became evident, however, that he had to get in command of his party first. A majority of the members of the party assembly, although also elected in May, were more loyal to the party secretary general, who had managed Kılıçdaroğlu’s election, than to the man they had actually elected as party chief. These members formed a veto group against the policy changes that their new leader contemplated. Intraparty debate among the leadership cadres together with a power struggle between the party president and the secretary general for the control of the party hardly constituted a persuasive picture for the voters. In spite of this, Kılıçdaroğlu at first appeared hesitant to force an extraor-
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dinary convention. Rather than taking immediate steps, he may have preferred to wait until a majority of party members concluded that the existing situation was not sustainable. In the end, however, he did call for the extraordinary convention. Baykal and Sav, who were barely on speaking terms with each other after the former’s departure from party leadership, both recognized that they would lose any influence they wielded in the party if a sufficient number of their loyalists did not get seats in the party assembly. There seemed to be only one course of action they could pursue: initiating a debate on what kind of ballot should be used in the hope that a “blanket list” might be adopted. Although both gentlemen had earlier favored what is called a “bloc list” — a ticket comprised only of the names of the candidates that the party leader had chosen — they now argued for a blanket list, which would contain the names of all those who wanted to offer their candidacy. In this latter instance, the delegates to the convention would mark a set number (80) of those whose names appeared on the ticket. Kılıçdaroğlu said that he would comply if the convention delegates asked him to shift to a blanket list. The mood of the delegates was for change and renewal, however. No motion was introduced to change the bloc list system. The convention ended as a total victory for the party president. In his bloc ticket, Kılıçdaroğlu included some names that were associated with the former party administration in order to ensure that all factions are represented in the party assembly. It is clear, however, that new faces will dominate the party’s administrative bodies. The critical question is what the change of personalities will mean for the party’s policies. The attributes of some of those elected may give clues, if not complete answers. There are 21 women including a prominent political sociologist, a leader of female entrepreneurs, and a 25-year-old expert on terrorism. The presence of the former bar association president from Diyarbakir suggests that the party wants to re-establish itself in provinces with significant Kurdish populations, a constituency the party had lost as it had moved toward hard line Turkish nationalism in recent years. Two retired diplomats known for their pragmatism may be a sign that the party will move away from a hard-line nationalistic orientation bordering on xenophobia to a course more oriented toward better relations with the United States and the EU. Already, prior to the convention, Kılıçdaroğlu had impressed the diplomatic circles in Ankara with his moderate and friendly disposition to the EU and transatlantic relations. He has also visited social democratic leaders in the EU countries and at Socialist International to rekindle his party’s relationship with them. That relationship had deteriorated under Baykal’s leadership, as European social democrats found his ideas and those of his associates neither sufficiently social nor democratic but strongly nationalist and out of tune with contemporary social democratic positions and concerns. It has been suggested that the party will soon come out with perhaps as many as two dozen position papers explaining where the party stands. Presumably prepared under the leadership of Professor Sencer Ayata, the member of the party executive committee responsible for research, these documents will fill a significant void. In personal conversations with the party’s rank and file, this author has often encountered complaints that they had scant knowledge of their party’s position on most issues facing the country. The distribution of these documents, if they indeed appear, may provide the badly needed policy guidance for the party organization and membership.
The critical question is what the change of personalities will mean for the party’s policies.
This is the second time that the party is trying to change its ideology and adapt itself to the needs and concerns of a widely transformed country. First in 1973, under the leadership of Bülent Ecevit, the party had tried to develop a constituency among the economically deprived under the banner of “left of center.” While the claim that the party had now become a social democratic party remained, little was offered in policy proposals to reflect the ideology and the party gradually returned to its traditional role of defending the ideological tenets of the Atatürk revolution — secularism, nationalism, and etatism. After its rebirth in 1992 (RPP was banned in 1980 by the military regime), the party retained its traditional ideology and approach to politics, but its electoral success was limited. Kılıçdaroğlu must now persuade both party members and the voters that his party, in addition to maintaining its modern republican standards, is capable of developing and pursuing more pragmatic policies that address everyday concerns of citizens, offering credible alternatives to the policies of the current government. There is wide consensus that an electoral performance exceeding 30 percent of the vote is needed in the
June 2011 elections in order to succeed in transforming his party to an effective rival to the AKP. Otherwise, the asymmetric competition where the opposition appears not ever to have the chance of becoming the government party is likely to continue while the RPP begins to look for a new leader. The speeches of Kılıçdaroğlu, first at the opening of the debate on the national budget in the Grand National Assembly and then at the party convention, do not give sufficient indication as regards to where he might lead his party. He has argued for greater democratization including within his party. He has promised populist-sounding social policies for the poor without clarifying how they would be financed. He has talked about a greater economic role for the state, less emphasis on privatization, and more state-created employment and investment. He has emphasized fighting pervasive corruption. He has also avoided referring to the Kurdish problem by name and he has said very little on foreign policy. The holding of an extraordinary convention may constitute an important or, as some have suggested, a historical step in building an ordinary social democratic party, which the Turkish political system still lacks. Whether it will succeed in doing that, only time will tell.
İlter Turan, Professor, Bilgi University
İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Koç University (19931998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (1987-1993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.
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