Soul-Searching in the CHP: Baykal’s “Chador Opening”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), kindled a controversial debate in Turkish politics when he introduced his new project to reach out to conservative circles. During a party meeting, Baykal pinned party rosettes on women wearing black chadors (carsaf), welcoming them to the CHP (, November 17). Since then, Baykal’s “chador initiative” has sparked a major debate within the CHP as well as between the CHP and other parties.

The initiative was surprising to many, because the CHP, like Turkey’s military and higher echelons of the judiciary, has presented itself as a major defender of Kemalist principles, in particular the narrow interpretation of secularism. After all, it was the CHP that brought the case before the Constitutional Court earlier this year, demanding the annulment of legislative changes that would have enabled girls with headscarves to attend universities. The court, sharing the same worldview as the CHP, annulled those changes in June (EDM, June 5).

Given the party’s previous position on the headscarf issue, criticism was expressed across the political spectrum over Baykal’s latest political move. Pundits in conservative and secularist camps slammed Baykal’s move: for the former, it was insincere (Vakit, November 23); and for the latter it was a regression from the gains of the Kemalist revolution and a step toward Shari’a rule (Hurriyet, November 20). Both camps believe that Baykal is seeking to make inroads into conservative circles but that the effort will be futile. Others also noted the women Baykal met were not representative of conservative women; they joined the party only because of their husbands’ opportunistic hopes of gaining political positions (, November 20).

Some of the CHP’s political opponents found this initiative a tactical move to attract conservative voters in the forthcoming local elections. Ironically, Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay, who is a former secretary-general of the CHP and a member of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2007, sharply criticized the move. “This is mere vote hunting. Far from being a [libertarian] opening, I see this as abuse,” he said. Gunay, however, also fired a few shots at his own party’s supporters, by referring to the chador as outmoded apparel for women (Sabah, December 6). Gunay’s position contrasted with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sympathetic response to his archenemy Baykal. Erdogan congratulated Baykal for this courageous move and encouraged him to be vigilant against criticism (, November 25).

In response to charges of pragmatism, CHP officials stressed that this development was sincere and was demanded by the party’s grass-roots supporters. In defense of his position, Baykal said, “Turkey is going through a healthy debate. This is not a [political] opening, but rather completely humanitarian and ethical behavior.” Noting that 70 percent of Turkish women cover their hair, Baykal added that chador was a traditional outfit in Turkey, not a political symbol. Arguing that the CHP valued people for their opinion, not their appearance, he added that his party was open to those who did not have problems with secularism and the state. (ANKA, November 26).

When criticism from within the secularist camp continued unabated, Baykal took further radical steps and argued that the CHP should engage in self-criticism and come to terms with the mistakes in its past, acknowledging that there might have been undue interference in people’s private lives. Viewing people’s clothing as a challenge to the state “is a mentality of a one-party regime. Everybody has to abandon that obsession.” Noting that Turkey was already socially fragmented, Baykal confronted his critics and maintained that the CHP could not afford the luxury of dividing the country further by judging people based on their appearance (Yeni Safak, December 3).

Nonetheless, the “chador initiative” has provoked enmity within the CHP. Baykal’s call for a critical reflection on the party’s past angered more radical voices. Necla Arat, a parliamentary deputy from Istanbul and one of the fervent advocates of the headscarf ban, disparaged Baykal. She said that “criticizing practices during the era of Ataturk and Ismet Inonu [the second president of Turkey] because of ‘one-party-rule’ is unfortunate. My friends and I have started wondering whether the party is betraying its heritage [reddi miras].” Scores of other CHP deputies reportedly share Arat’s opinion (Hurriyet, December 4).

A rather surprising attack on Baykal came from the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, who said that this issue was, in fact, a non-issue and did not correspond to the real problems of the people. He said, “As part of the Greater Middle East Project, there is an attempt to shape Turkish politics through moderate Islam… The Right pillar of moderate Islam is the AKP…Is there an attempt to erect a Left pillar of moderate Islam through this opening?” (Anadolu Ajansi, December 9).

Baykal issued a written response to Bahceli, in which he drew a distinction between a legitimate right to certain religious freedoms and moderate Islam as a political project. Baykal attacked Bahceli by saying, “only those who either abuse religion or come from a tradition of setting political traps [referring to the MHP’s controversial role in urging the AKP to pass the constitutional amendments on headscarves] will dislike this [the CHP’s defense of religious freedom]” (ANKA, December 10).

Baykal indeed took a bold step by opening one-party rule to debate and indicating that the CHP would defend religious freedom, but there are grounds for being skeptical about the prospects of the “chador initiative.” As political scientist Bekir Berat Ozipek says, having ruled the country singlehandedly during the one-party-era (1923-1950), the CHP has not been able to adapt itself to competitive electoral politics since Turkey moved to multi-party rule in the 1950s (Today’s Zaman, December 8). Indeed, the CHP’s critical distance from the masses and their lifestyles and its modernization project of transforming Turkish society have shaped the identity of the party’s core grassroots. Therefore, even if Baykal’s intentions were sincere, many analysts like Ozipek are skeptical about the CHP’s ability to transform itself from a statist party to a liberal party embracing human rights and religious fr

Skeptics also refer to Baykal’s track record. He promised in the 1990s to develop a new platform that would be called the Liberal Left or the Anatolian Left and would represent the conservative people. For some, this project failed because of Baykal’s low credibility and unprincipled pragmatism (, November 20). Ozipek believes that those steps were never taken, because such a move would contradict the identity and the ideology of the CHP’s core secularist constituency. Ozipek put it sarcastically: “a party leader could experience such enlightenment all of a sudden, but expecting a change in party politics in such a brief period of time would be naïve.”