Like in every Turkish election rally, there was a sea of flags. This time, last Saturday, they were the red flags of the CHP, the Republican People’s Party, and blue flags with the portrait of the party’s leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. CHP supporters waved their flags to the rhythm of the music played. Stimulating election songs, and songs by artists of different styles on stage. I asked a woman next to me who a certain artist was. She looked surprised that I didn’t know him. I said: ‘I’m a foreigner; I don’t know all these people.’ She smiled, answered my question and then asked if I was from Europe. I said yes, from Holland. Her face changed from smiling to grim, her eyes from friendly to fire. I didn’t understand the details of what she said, but it was very obvious that Europe wasn’t any good.
I was eye to eye with what I call ‘old CHP’. This woman really seemed to represent it. Grim and easily angered, nationalistic, an Atatürk-lover without the slightest doubt, fiercely against everyone who wants to change state truths that have for decades been carved in stone. Often, these CHP supporters are rather well off in life: they come from families with positions within the state bureaucracy, or from business elites.
The CHP has been serving this group of their voters very well over the last couple of years. They have been refusing any cooperation with governing party AKP, because they accuse it of threatening secularism, they have been defending the power that be, including that of the army, and stood up for people on trial for plotting a coup. The strange thing is, the CHP is supposed to be a social-democrat party, a party for the people. If there is anything they have not been for ages, it’s a people’s party.
You can see this too in the election campaign. I live in a rather poor neighbourhood, and there are surely some votes to be got here for a party that is genuinely social democrat. There are Roma in my part of the city too, and if the CHP would do what it should do as social democrats, they would make sensible policies for this discriminated group in society and win votes. But the CHP is not even campaigning here, they only have a noisy campaign bus near the Üsküdar harbour. If you want to see the CHP campaigning, you have to go to the rich parts of town. That’s where their voters live. Can you believe how totally out of balance things have grown for social democracy in Turkey?
Is there hope? Yes, there is. During the rally this Saturday, I was with a group of young CHP supporters. Men and women in their twenties, well educated, and with their eyes turned towards the future instead of looking back to the past. One of them, Damla Cinhangir (26 years old, left on the picture and here on twitter), told me she has been voting CHP in every election, but not out of love for the party. ‘Since I was eligible to vote, I have not felt represented by any party’, she told me. ‘I only voted for the CHP because I saw no alternative.’ How sad is that?
But now, things have changed. The CHP has had a new leader since a year ago, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. This group of positive, future-minded young Turks see reasons to give him not only the benefit of the doubt but even their full support. The CHP campaign has for a good part focused on classic social democrat issues, like more equality between rich and poor. Kilicdaroglu wants to introduce a family insurance scheme, give the poorest people 600 tl a month to secure a basic income and abolish the university entrance fee (but unfortunately failed to mention where he will get the money to pay for all that). He even proposed more power to regions in Turkey, and campaigned with the plan in the Kurdish south east of the country. When you know that ‘the unity of the country’ is one of the basics of the republic that are fiercely defended by the ‘old CHP’, you can see that’s rather brave.
The great thing about Damla and her friends is that they try to reach the group of potential voters the CHP has neglected for so long. They went campaigning in poor neighbourhoods. Rang people’s door bells, talked to them about difficulties in their lives and told them about the plans of the CHP. The people were often surprised and told them they never saw the CHP in their suburbs before. Damla: ‘More young people are joining the CHP now, all over the country, and our aim is to establish a network of these local groups and be stronger.’
In the coming elections the CHP will get bigger, the polls say they might go from 21% in the last elections to 28% or even 30% now. I am not convinced yet of the change in the party. After the elections the CHP will have to perform and Kilicdaroglu has to show that he takes social democracy seriously again. For now, he seems to be between the old and the new CHP – he even chose suspected coup plotters as MP candidates. Damla sees Kilicdaroglu as the hope of the CHP, but I prefer to look at it the other way around. The grass roots like Damla and her friends, they are the hope of the CHP. If they make themselves heard and keep up the good work with their wonderful, future-minded outlook, they might be able to oust the grim, angry nationalistic old CHP. They could change the party from within. And such change is the only change that lasts.