A political party’s electoral prospects are generally harmed when one of its leaders is taken down by a tawdry sex scandal. The resignation of Deniz Baykal in the wake of the release of a grainy video showing him in a bedroom with a female politician from his party, however, just may be the exception.
Baykal led the staunchly secularist CHP, which was created by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It is one of the primary parties in opposition to the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, the party has stagnated under Baykal: It was trounced by the AKP by double digits in Turkey’s 2002 and 2007 general elections, and all signs point to a similar result in the upcoming 2011 campaign. However, due to the hierarchical nature of Turkish politics, Baykal was unlikely to be removed from his leadership role despite his obvious lack of electoral appeal.
The moribund state of the CHP was reinforced for me during a trip to Turkey in March. Our delegation met with one of Baykal’s top deputies, one of the more unimpressive officials we encountered. Like Baykal, his message stuck to the party’s dogma, which hasn’t changed noticeably since the days of Ataturk. If Baykal’s likely successor, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is smart, he will seize this opportunity to update the CHP’s message in a way that speaks more clearly to Turkey’s modern-day challenges — and, in doing so, revitalize its appeal to the Turkish electorate. Who knows, perhaps a sex scandal is just what the Turkish opposition needs to get its act straight.