Turkey Election Reveals Resurgence of Nationalism as Driving Political Force
For many observers of the Turkish politics, Sunday’s elections did not only mark a regime change, de jure establishment of one-man rule with bestowing sweeping powers at the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It also revealed the resurgent return of nationalism as a driving socio-political force in Turkey’s political landscape.
Nothing other than the unexpectedly high standing of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) at the ballot box can be more illustrating to see the resilience of social forces of nationalism. Threatened by the formation of a rival nationalist party by breakaway and splintering factions from the MHP, its Chairman Devlet Bahceli re-aligned the party with President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) this year.
The precedents of the re-alignment took place before April 2017 referendum and later morphed to an electoral one ahead of the June 24 snap elections. Without the support of each other, both parties and their leaders would not reach their respective goals: whereas for MHP, it was simply political survival by entering Parliament, securing majority was an indispensable objective for the AKP in the face of an emboldened opposition alliance. While for MHP Chairman Bahceli, the ultimate aim was suppression of an intra-party insurgency against his grip over the party; for Erdogan, it was securing presidential office in his re-election bid.
Both sides got what they sought. The MHP enabled Erdogan to achieve his lifelong dream; executive presidency. And the alliance with the AKP helped MHP avoid sinking into irrelevance and oblivion with the prospect of Good (IYI) Party’s possible domination of the landscape of nationalist politics.
Defying forecasts, MHP acquired more than 11 percent of the votes. Its arch-rival Good Party led by former MHP stalwart Meral Aksener also got 10.5 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections, taking part in the complexion of the new legislative body.
President Erdogan’s AKP saw a significant loss in its share of the votes and was able to receive 42.5 percent on Sunday. It means a 7 percent decline in its votes in comparison to Nov. 1, 2015 general elections. Thanks to “People’s Alliance (Cumhur Ittifaki), the party secured the majority in 600-seat Parliament in the new legislative term.
“Through his alliance with MHP, Erdogan consolidated his position as the most visible representative of a pious-Turkish nationalist point of view in Turkey,” Professor Resat Kasaba, Director of Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Globe Post Turkey.
“Regardless of people’s political alliances, piety and nationalism probably cover political preference of more than 2/3 Turkey’s electorate. In that sense, it is not surprising that Erdogan won,” he said in an analysis of the factors that shaped the outcome of Turkey’s one of the most critical elections.
He echoed a widely shared conviction that the elections were not fair as a result of the state of emergency imposed two years ago. But there are other elements that the ruling AKP successfully tapped into in a bid to consolidate its base by highlighting the continuity to deal with emerging signs of economic hardships.
The AKP, Kasaba noted, also made sure to maintain well-oiled machine of patronage that extends to small towns and beyond. Still, he harbors reservations about governing Turkey in an increasingly volatile environment at home and abroad.
With growing uncertainties in the economy and the continuing fluidity of the regional and international relations, he said, it will not be easy to govern Turkey in the coming months and years. He added: “I am not sure if labels such as “electoral autocracy” help us understand the situation better. I would wait to see if Erdogan and AKP can maintain the coalition that has carried them to victory and how they react to increasing pressures.”
Thomas W. Smith, Professor of Political Science in the University of South Florida, also thinks that the election was conducted under a cloud of censorship and coercion. “Definitely not free and fair.”
For him, the HDP’s success is a bright spot, but overall the electoral map is solidly either authoritarian and Islamist or right-wing and nationalist.
“Ideologically, this represents a death knell for human rights in Turkey, with tolerant, liberal-minded Turks increasingly marginalized,” he told Globe Post Turkey. “Very little is left of the Europeanizing Kemalist establishment. A dark day for Turkey,” he said in disbelief.
According to Smith, right-wing parties like MHP did well in northeast Turkey on the frontline with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. So, perhaps the good right-wing showing in Southeast Turkey, he argued, reflects concerns about countering the chaos in Syria.
The MHP’s high figures baffled observers of the election. MHP Chairman Bahceli hardly bothered to thrust himself onto the campaign trail. He avoided holding rallies and was absent from campaigning except for occasional media remarks and statements.
What is more galling is the factor that the MHP nearly increased its votes from 100 percent to 203 percent in southeastern Turkey, traditionally a stronghold of pro-Kurdish HDP and ruling AKP. The electoral map even led to wild speculations, with some analysts peddling conspiracy theories about election engineering by the AKP.
When Supreme Election Council (YSK) decided to move ballot boxes that concern more than 135,000 voters in certain parts of southeastern Turkey, observers and HDP officials cried afoul over potential efforts for fraud. The HDP accused the ruling AKP to interfere in the voting process in a way that could alter the result in its favor.
But nobody expected that the MHP would dramatically shore up its votes in the strongholds of the Kurdish party such as the eastern and southeastern provinces of Van, Mus, Diyarbakir, Sirnak and Hakkari.
According to Doga Ulas Eralp, a lecturer at School of International Service at American University, the MHP performed much better than expected, received electoral support even in Kurdish majority towns in the East.
He said that there are a few factors that contributed to this. “Over the last three years, Ankara increased its security personnel in the East, many with families. This constituency was quite forthcoming about their support.”
In remarks to Globe Post Turkey, he argued that pro-government Kurdish clans and militia allied with Turkish intelligence-security apparatus were ordered to vote overwhelmingly for the MHP. “Third, although Ms. Aksener’s center-right IYI Party’s split from MHP carried some votes, MHP recovered support from the nationalist former AKP supporters as well as young voters in the Anatolian heartland influenced by the nationalist propaganda on government-controlled media,” he said in an elaboration of the dynamics played out in the eastern parts of the country.
With IYI and the MHP combined together, nationalist votes constitute more than 21 percent of the entire votes, something that has never happened in the history of Turkey’s elections. The first time the MHP got most votes was in 1999 when Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was captured and jailed. With the swelling of strident nationalism upon Ocalan’s capture, the Turkish politics tilted toward more chauvinistic nationalism. The MHP then got 17.98 percent of the votes. It never reached same levels.
President Erdogan has recently espoused an unwavering nationalist credo since the failed coup attempt in 2016 and he plunged the Turkish military into northern Syria in a bid to crush state-building aspirations of a Syrian Kurdish political party and its military wing.
This March, the Turkish troops captured Afrin, a northwestern Syrian enclave controlled by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a PKK-affiliated militia, after two months of ferocious fighting. President Erdogan and his government veered toward the right and a heavily dosed nationalist rhetoric reached a crescendo with the fall of Afrin.
But the nationalist fervor quickly dissipated and faded away as the economy appeared to be in tatters with the lira’s downward spiral against the U.S. dollar. Bread and butter issues began to take precedence over identity politics and nationalism.
Yet, the president, with a new twist, succeeded to portray economic troubles as a national struggle against dark global powers aimed at curbing Turkey’s grand development projects. His target audience was his loyal base who is disposed to be receptive to the president’s theories and explanations over national matters.
“For the combined vote increase on nationalist vote,” said Esra Ozyurek, an Associate Professor at London School of Economics and Political Science: “This is in line with the increase in nationalist vote globally.”
She told Globe Post Turkey that in the last few years AKP also moved away from Islamist politics and turned towards nationalism. “It is likely that this further fuelled the nationalist sentiment in the country.”
The AKP has blended a form of Islamism with ingredients of nationalist ideology, providing what scholars say “Muslim nationalism” as a new framework to guide Turkey’s contemporary course of politics both at home and abroad. That slow-motion pivot to a more nationalist stance has become more materialized with the demands of power politics such as the need to stay in power and has made the Islamist-rooted AKP more dependent on nationalist politics in general, and the MHP in particular.