Meet the “New” Republican Party in Turkey

Changing Opposition Offers Further Opportunities for Engagement

Michael Werz and Tyler Evans explain why the United States should maintain a dialogue with Turkey’s opposition as well as ruling parties.

Supporters of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, listen to the party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 4, 2011. (AP)
Supporters of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, listen to the party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 4, 2011. (AP)

Turkey’s main opposition Republican Party seems poised to renew itself and re-engage in the Washington policy conversation for the first time in many years. U.S. policymakers have the opportunity to use changes underway in Turkey in order to broaden bilateral dialogue on the issues both countries have a stake in. In this piece we take a look at the changes underway in Turkey’s political landscape and in particular how shifts in the Republican Party offer potential new areas for engagement with the United States.

Turkey’s growing importance in U.S. policy

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Turkey in mid-July once more underscored the United States’s shifting strategic outlook. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ankara is quickly becoming a strategic anchor for U.S. policy in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean amidst discussions surrounding the withdrawal of over 100,000 U.S. troops from Germany as well as questions about NATO’s capabilities in the future.

Philip Gordon, longtime Turkey observer and assistant secretary of state, remarked last May that Turkey’s combination of strategic, economic, and cultural assets touches vital concerns “of both our countries … the stability of the Middle East and relations with the broader Islamic world, relations with the Caucasus and Black Sea region, the transit of energy from the Caspian Basin to Europe, the security and development of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the maintenance of strong ties to Europe and the Trans-Atlantic alliance.”

The administration’s consistent focus on the partnership with Turkey’s government is owed to a rapidly changing geopolitical environment in the Mediterranean.

Turkey has been governed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, since 2002. Even after close to a decade in power Erdogan won re-election this June with almost half of the vote. Much of Turkey’s foreign policy is driven by the prime minister’s positive image in the greater Middle East, his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s boundless energy and ambition, and in no small part by the substantial increase in regional economic relations boosted mainly by an emerging merchant class in central and eastern Anatolia.

For almost a decade, AKP representatives have also held the monopoly on shaping the country’s image abroad and playing a relevant role in the Washington policy conversation. This might change, however.

For the first time in many years a high-level delegation of the main opposition Republican Party CHP visited U.S. policymakers this spring and engaged in public and private conversations on Turkey. The group tasked with introducing the “new CHP” to the beltway crowd consisted of CHP Deputy Chairman Umut Oran, who stands for a new generation of Turkish businessmen, and Gulsun Bilgehan Toker, the granddaughter of the second Turkish President Ismet Inonu. Former ambassadors to the United States Faruk Logoglu and Osman Koruturk also joined the group.

Koruturk openly advocates for a new tone in U.S. relations and for turning over a new leaf with Jerusalem to enhance strained Turkish-Israeli relations. At home, he has broken ground for CHP by meeting with community leaders of the Greek and Armenian minorities. Given the nationalistic tradition of his party, such steps require courage.

A party in transition

The CHP’s renewed interest in the United States as well as its willingness to revisit some of the uncompromising positions it took in the past mirror the massive change the party is undergoing right now.

Over the past year the CHP began a painful and controversial process of emancipating itself from its nationalist past—a difficult task for a party whose history is inextricably intertwined with the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923. The party also has long been an uneasy alliance of social democrats, staunch nationalists, and authoritarian segments of the military.

This process of reform is still incomplete, and the prospects for real change are uncertain. But from a U.S. perspective it is important to appreciate those changes. Reform is not easy given the depth of the party’s tradition—and that needs to be acknowledged to appraise the current transformation.

In many ways, the CHP’s complex history defies conventional political classifications. On the one hand, the party always defined itself as a progressive organization with a mission to advance society against the forces of outmoded customs and conservatism. This mantle has drawn some of Turkey’s most prominent social democrats to the CHP, with Ismail Cem—a statesman and social democratic theorist—and Bulent Ecevit, the social-democratic icon and prime minister of the 1970s, among the most well-known.

Yet the CHP also sternly defends the Turkish state’s nationalist principles of Turkishness—sometimes to the point of infringing upon civil, individual, and minority rights taken for granted in other emerging democracies such as India, Brazil, or Mexico. Further, the fate of the CHP is still closely tied to the interests of the elites who define themselves with their highly westernized lifestyles.

Middle East Bureau Chief Michael Thumann of the German weekly Die Zeit refers to this seemingly contradictory interplay of forces as “the riddle of the CHP,” pointing out that “There is an elite group which supports the CHP. Yet at the same time they try to reach out to the working class. But since this is not convincing, many lower and lower middle class people vote for [the leader of the center-right party] Tayyip Erdogan.”[1]

During its time in the opposition during the last two decades the CHP offered few policy alternatives or new approaches to day-to-day governance. Instead, its traditionalist Chairman Deniz Baykal waged a culture war, drawing the battle lines on issues such as lifting the ban on wearing head scarves in public buildings―a nonnegotiable subject for the dogmatic Kemalists and the military, both strong supporters of Deniz Baykal. The CHP also became the party of “no” on issues such as minority rights and ambitious liberal reforms within Turkey designed to fulfill the criteria for membership in the European Union.[2]

Important changes took place within Turkish society in the past two decades, especially the enormous economic development in the more conservative central and eastern parts of the country. This modernization process lead to a changing electoral map, empowering the more conservative, less Kemalist segments of central and eastern Anatolia. With these changes, the CHP’s prospects for taking power began to appear increasingly remote.

Under Deniz Baykal’s two decades of leadership beginning in the early 1990s the Republican Party lost elections time and again. Notably, the party waged a no-holds-barred effort to block the AKP’s pick for president, Abdullah Gul, in 2007. In this debate, concerns about separation of powers—having one party control both the presidency and the parliament was a cause for concern—were overshadowed by symbolic controversy because prospective president Abdullah Gul has a wife who wears the hijab. The AKP responded by calling for an early election, which ended in electoral gains for them.[3]

Then, the media released reports on May 5, 2010, that a video had been leaked showing hidden camera footage of an illicit affair between party leader Deniz Baykal and a colleague.[4] This scandal succeeded where the internal political opposition previously failed, and Baykal resigned from the chairmanship four days after the scandal broke.

In the fight for the party’s chairmanship Kemal Kilicdaroglu portrayed himself as the archetypal outsider challenging the corrupt cabal of traditional politicians, creating an effective image that was already drawing crowds of CHP supporters when he ran for Istanbul mayor in 2009. He became the new CHP chairman with over 90 percent of the 2010 party congress’s votes.

Kilicdaroglu soon after began a whirlwind project to rebrand the CHP in time for the June 2011 election. He traveled the country stopping at small villages and listening to concerns from Turkish citizens—a new approach for a party that traditionally did not pay much attention to the less developed parts of the country.

On these trips, Kilicdaroglu took every opportunity to present himself as a warrior for the common man, dressing without a tie and trying on the traditional garments of the locales he was visiting. He also sported a worker’s cap that belonged to the late-Bulent Ecevit, the CHP leader who made history by appealing to voters outside of old elite caste of CHP voters. These symbolic changes were designed to communicate his willingness to adopt a new approach to policymaking on the part of the CHP and to break with the old guard.

Kilicdaroglu took steps from the beginning to show his commitment to the message of change he was promoting. Party leaders consulted with scholars and political advisers from outside the party to produce a series of policy documents with concrete proposals for governance. Rather than trumpeting the old ideological slogans, the new party program focused on appealing to the day-to-day problems of voters. They laid out propositions for poverty relief and improved social security as well as university reform and improved access to education.

The “new CHP” also made substantial pledges for reform in areas previously taboo for the party. In May 2011, Kemal Kilicdaroglu visited Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey and a former no-man’s-land for the CHP. He clearly emphasized the significance of this visit by remarking during his speech that: “[Our critics] are right about one thing. We haven’t interacted enough with Diyarbakir. We haven’t sat down with its people, had tea, chatted.”[5]

Because of the CHP’s internal renewal it entered the June 2011 parliamentarian election with high hopes—perhaps too high. The party managed to increase its share of the vote from less than 20 percent four years ago to nearly 26 percent. Yet these gains were overshadowed by the incumbent Justice and Development Party’s resounding victory, and they failed to meet the high bar Kemal Kilicdaroglu had set for himself.

The aftermath of the June election

With the elections complete, Turkish society is preparing to embark on a difficult reform process that will include drafting a new constitution and implementing a new package of Kurdish reforms. How Turkey copes with these two challenges will define the future of most political parties—the CHP included.

For the Republican Party this translates into two crucial and potentially divisive issues.

The first is whether the “new CHP” will continue its path toward modern social democracy and increased engagement with contemporary dynamics of Turkish society. Considering the party’s history this is not a given. It remains to be seen if the CHP can establish itself as an effective voice in the parliament and assert its members in policy debates while at the same time cooperating in the crucial constitutional reform process that the governing AKP has pledged to lead.

The second is the tense political atmosphere and the bad blood between the CHP and AKP leadership. Both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu see themselves as reformers. But this does not mean they agree on much. Prime Minister Erdogan continues to equate the CHP with the status quo, depicting the opposition as an obstacle to effective governance and reform. At the same time, Kemal Kilicdaroglu claims that the prime minister is using reform instrumentally and that his real plan is to shape Turkey’s political system toward his party’s and his own personal ends.

Still, both parties have strong incentives to cooperate. For the AKP the success in the next term depends on successfully drafting a new constitution and implementing substantial reforms on the political and social inclusion of Turkey’s Kurdish population, even in the face of violent insurgency and nationalist backlash. Both of these tasks will be impossible without the support of the CHP.

Institutionally, the ruling AKP is just shy of the number of parliamentary seats required to take constitutional reform to referendum. But even if the ruling party were able to scrounge the seats needed to unilaterally bring a new constitution to the public, making such a move would jeopardize the democratic legitimacy of the reforms and vindicate the prime minister’s critics who accuse him of creeping authoritarian tendencies.

Meanwhile, Kurdish reform is vital for Turkey’s future, and it is intimately tied to core U.S. interests in the region. Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Libya are all located within the Turkish sphere of influence, and if Turkey manages to consolidate its southeast under a stable, democratic framework, it would be in an even better position to serve as a center of trade and growth for northern Iraq. It would also allow Ankara to strengthen its cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government. This would open Turkey to a deeper role in Iraq’s reconstruction, an important development given that Ankara has already demonstrated its potential to act as a nonsectarian and trusted broker between the various stakeholders in Iraq.

A new role for the “new CHP”

The “new CHP” could become an important voice in the foreign policy discussion across the range of U.S.-Turkish bilateral issues beyond playing a key role in its domestic reforms.

The CHP can steal the limelight by urging Ankara to push further in diplomatic affairs instead of remaining the party of “no” on foreign policy. Former ambassadors and members of last year’s CHP delegation, Osman Koruturk and Faruk Logolgu, have succeeded in this area, pushing the envelope by suggesting a new tone with Israel and restoring ties with Armenia.[6] Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu recently joined with his colleagues in stating that he favored normalizing relations with Israel and sitting at the table with Armenia.[7] Logolgu also argued effectively for a multilateral approach to the Iranian nuclear program, offering recommendations that are worth consideration both in Washington and Ankara.[8]

This new dialogue promises to improve mutual understanding between the United States and Turkey and offer possible constructive approaches toward the many issues and interests shared by both countries.

Secretary Clinton showed her appreciation of this fact by meeting with Kilicdaroglu in each of her recent trips to Turkey. The value of fostering a plurality of constructive voices in the U.S.-Turkish dialogue will only increase as Turkey becomes a core element of the United States’s regional engagement strategy. From the reconstruction in Iraq to the containment of Iran and the stabilization of Libya, all these issues require active Turkish involvement.

The regional U.S. engagement strategy needs Turkey as an anchor, and the administration is investing much political capital in this special partnership. But the United States needs to engage the entire Turkish political spectrum given the country’s importance. Even though the new CHP is in opposition for at least another four years it has a role to play in this important partnership.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress where his work focuses on climate migration and security and transatlantic foreign policy including Turkey and Tyler Evans is an intern with the National Security team.


[1] Interview with Michael Thumann, July 1 2011.

[2] Interview with Cengiz Aktar, July 1, 2011.

[3] Heymi Bahar, “The Real Winners and Losers of Turkey’s June 2007 Elections,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, 2007.

[4] “CHP’de gizli kamera şoku,” Hurriyet, May 7, 2010, available at

[5] “Kürt sorununu Kemal kardeşiniz çözecek!" HaberTurk, May 31, 2011, available at

[6] Fulya Özerkan, “CHP ready to negotiate with Armenia without any preconditions” Hurriyet Daily News, June 21, 2011, available at; and Fulya Özerkan, “Turkey, Israel to hold new round of talks,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 19, 2011, available at

[7] Fulya Özerkan, “CHP ready to negotiate with Armenia without any preconditions,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 21, 2011, available at

[8] For examples see Faruk Logoglu, “The gamble over Iran,” Hurriyet Daily News, May 26, 2010, available at; and Faruk Logoglu, “The Iran puzzle,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 8, 2009, available at

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