Out with the old? Turk secularists seek new vision

Fri May 21, 2010 1:06pm EDT
 

By Pinar Aydinli

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's secular opposition is expected to choose a new, younger leader this weekend at a congress that will usher out an old guard who had posed little threat to the Islamist-leaning ruling party's hold on power.

The Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's oldest party and the voice of the secularist elite, is seeking a makeover in the hope of stopping Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from winning a third consecutive term in an election due next year.

A dominant force in Turkish politics for decades, the CHP has been accused by critics of becoming out of touch with a rapidly-changing country and has blocked many EU-driven reforms.

Recently, CHP, founded by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, was thrown into disarray after veteran party leader Deniz Baykal resigned following a sex tape scandal this month.

Having been trounced by Erdogan's AK Party in the last two general elections, CHP delegates will meet Saturday and Sunday in Ankara, where they are widely expected to choose Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a moderate, as new chairman, party insiders say.

"The oligarchic structure is likely to evolve into a more democratic formation under Kilicdaroglu," Tarhan Erdem, head of the Konda research and polling group, told the Daily News.

"The policies toward Turkey's problems and the methods adopted by the CHP are also likely to change. But this should not be in words, but in deeds," he said.

The pro-business AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam but embraces nationalists and the center-right elements as well, swept traditional parties tainted by graft and mismanagement from power in 2002.

The CHP suspects the AK Party, which has led Turkey's drive for EU membership, of wanting to roll back Turkey's secular constitution in order to turn the Muslim country into an Islamic state. The AK Party denies any such ambitions.

Analysts say the CHP under the 71-year old Baykal had played into the AK Party's hands by making a career out of resisting reforms and by goading the army and the judiciary into halting the AK Party's increasing dominance.

Now it faces a dilemma as it seeks a strategy to return to power.

"A huge part of society is looking for work and food while there are only fights about the regime and secularism on the agenda," Mehmet Ali Birand, a liberal commentator wrote.

Baykal, who quit this month after the release of an Internet video allegedly showing him and a female colleague semi-clothed in a bedroom, has said he has no plans to run again.

Baykal, who led the CHP for 20 years, said he was the victim of a government conspiracy.

Analysts have said Kilicdaroglu, a 61 year-old soft-spoken CHP apparatchik from the mainly Kurdish southeast, could breathe new life into the party ahead of elections due by July 2011.

During his race for MP in local elections in 2009, Kilicdaroglu focused on fighting graft and creating jobs, rather the CHP's tried and failed strategies aimed at scaring voters over the AK Party's suspected Islamist designs.

Analysts say the CHP old guard's virulent opposition to reform has lost it support among liberals and urban secularists, who find themselves more in tune with Erdogan's moderate brand of Islam and his agenda to bring the Muslim country of 71 million people closer to the EU.

The AK Party, which draws its support from a rising pious middle class from the Anatolian heartland, has found favor with foreign investors and overseen a period of unparalleled growth.

(Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Reed Stevenson)