Road to perdition for CHP’s Kılıçdaroğlu

The condemnation or damnation you should expect when you lose yet another election (the 13th in a row) is not usually postponed until hereafter, the great beyond; you pay for your failure while you are very much alive! But that is true for usual politicians. Suppose you represent an institutionalized political entity like the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) in Mexico or the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Türkiye. In that case, different rules might be involved.

The PRI was founded in 1929 by Plutarco Elías Calles, Mexico’s paramount leader at the time and self-proclaimed Jefe Máximo (Supreme Chief) of the Mexican Revolution; it did not lose a single election until 2000. It was so institutionally identified by what the founders called “the Mexican revolution” after the 1950s it adopted the word “Institucional” in its name! It had been involved in many political scandals, crises and assassinations, sending disgraced leaders to exile, and continued ruling Mexico.

Türkiye’s CHP is, according to several political science textbooks, the only pollical institution comparable to the PRI. It has been considered the “founding party” of the new republic; it ruled the country from 1923 to 1950. It was so much identified with the “republic” that it was named after it!

It enjoyed the power even three times after the military coups, but it never won an electoral victory. All those years, it had one – nay, two – chairmen: the founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his “second-in-command” Ismet Inönü. On Nov. 12, 1938, the day after Atatürk’s death, Inönü assumed leadership of the republic and its party until he was ousted by his own second-in-command, Bülent Ecevit. In May 1972, Ecevit accused Inönü of endorsing the military intervention in 1971 and won the chairpersonship. Ecevit adopted an ambiguous left program for the party, remaining staunchly nationalist. His never-fully-explained “Halk Sektörü Modeli” (The ‘People’s Sector’ model) had been presented as an alternative to the Western-type free-competitive capitalism that CHP had supported after its original state-capitalism model had been refuted internationally and nationally, especially after Adnan Menderes’ Democracy Parti reforms.

To make a long story short, CHP had, just like its Mexican twin, the malady of leaders who stick to the party’s leadership for years to end until either death do them part or angry contenders. Each case occurred once: Atatürk’s demise and Ecevit’s fury against Inönü. Ecevit and other political leaders were banned from politics and sent to internal exile. After long and turbulent years of banning, “reborn,” and restructuring as part of all other elements of domestic politics, CHP experienced a third type of leadership change: outing through secret video-filming. The late chairperson of the “new” CHP, Deniz Baykal, had to resign from his post after a sex tape of him was leaked to the media.

How it all started

Thus started the “road to perdition” 13 years ago.

Mr. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected to be the new party leader in May 2010. He promised to return the CHP to its traditional roots. Still, he never explicitly told if he meant the social-democratic image after Ecevit and Baykal or its true root of secularist statist – establishmentarian Kemalist and “Inönist” character.

Kılıçdaroğlu said he was going to build bridges to voters it has huffed and hurt: the Kurds and right-wing voters. However, even after so much water has passed under those bridges and after five general elections and several referenda, the CHP has still not won an election; Kılıçdaroğlu at the helm, it has been receiving between only 22% and 26% of the vote in polls.

Kılıçdaroğlu supported all the unsuccessful “no” campaigns in the constitutional referenda. In his general elections, Kılıçdaroğlu never garnered popular support more than 25%. The 2013 Gezi Park protests found much help in the CHP, but CHP found no support in the extreme groups that could carry it to power.

Atatürk and Inönü had been proclaimed by the CHP as “Ebedi Şef” (immortal chief) and “Milli Şef” (national chief), respectively, but they had not been tested in popular votes. They enjoyed the “one-party” system. When Türkiye had to allow a multiparty system after applying for membership in NATO, Inönü invented what is called the “open vote closed count” model: voters cast their votes in the open, and the counting was done in a closed session of the election (read: government) officials. (No joking! Of course, CHP had “won,” and Menderes’s party had to wait four more years to run the country.)

Kılıçdaroğlu, following the suit of these “chiefs,” might have thought that winning elections was not a requirement in modern political parties. He had studied economics at the Ankara Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences, now Gazi University, from which he graduated in 1971. Apparently, he did not study Robert Michels’ 1915 book “Political Parties,” which taught us that “Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

Political scientists like Joseph LaPalombara, Seymour Martin Lipset and David Easton worked on this succinct theory of Michels on the “oligarchical tendencies” of modern political parties. They showed us why those bureaucrat-turned-politicians tend to create their own oligarchies through their party bureaucracies and ignore political rallies, election campaigns and polls.

In modern times, no chairperson of a political organization sticks with its chair: If his party wins the election, he or she becomes the president or prime minister as long as the people keep him or her there. One election defeat, you are out!

Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu was a civil servant; he served as the director-general of the Social Insurance Institution from 1992 to 1996 and again from 1997 to 1999. After he retired, he was elected to Parliament in 2002. In the 2009 local elections, he was nominated as the CHP candidate to run for Mayor of Istanbul but lost to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Kılıçdaroğlu’s strategy

As the leader of the main opposition, Kılıçdaroğlu’s strategy has been to construct big-tent coalitions with other parties, which culminated in the formation of the Nation Alliance. Coalition members supported the party that had the most votes in the recent election, and this strategy worked: CHP and other members of the alliance won several mayorships in the 2019 local elections. Kılıçdaroğlu was the CHP’s and the Nation Alliance’s joint candidate for the 2023 presidential election but lost to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The natural expectation of the alliance leaders and his own party elders was, of course, a graceful resignation, a spectacular but somber send-off party. Gifts and flowers, a few tears here and there. Because this is the natural perdition for the defeated: “Vae victis…” Woe to the vanquished … Woe to the conquered … Those defeated in modern time elections are entirely at the mercy of the other hopefuls and should not expect leniency.

But Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu began shouting “organization,” and as Michels said, those who say “organization” mean “oligarchy.” Kılıçdaroğlu says his party organization, that is, those party functionaries that he appointed, elected and charged himself, wants to see him at the helm of the party.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s partners at the “table for six” are gradually leaving him alone. Apparently, there will hardly be an alliance in the forthcoming local elections. Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu, once playing the role of a son to “the father” Kılıçdaroğlu, now fearing his own seat as Istanbul mayor, is issuing dastardly calls for him to resign. Imamoğlu’s fainthearted campaign for “change” is going nowhere.

“Road to perdition,” in Kılıçdaroğlu’s case, is likely to lead him to disaster. In Tom Hanks’ and Paul Newman’s movie with this title, Hanks’ character Michael Sullivan asks his son, Peter, “Why are you always smiling?”

The mafia chief Connor Rooney responds: “Cause it’s all so hysterical.”

Source: Daily Sabah

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About the author

Hakki Ocal

Hakki Ocal

Hakkı Öcal is a columnist at both Daily Sabah and Milliyet newspapers, which are based in Istanbul. He is also an advisor to the President of Ibn Haldun University.

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