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Turkey’s Hour of Nationalism: The Deeper Sources of Political Realignment

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The March 31 local election in Turkey was a bombshell: Contrary to expectations, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost not only the capital Ankara, but the country’s biggest metropolis, Istanbul, where Erdoğan himself rose to prominence as Mayor in the 1990s. The Supreme Electoral Council’s May 6 decision to cancel the Istanbul election and order a June 23 rerun was equally significant. To many, it amounted to the final nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy. EU Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri said it”ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections.”

Canceling an election is no small matter: President Erdoğan’s legitimacy has always rested on a raw, majoritarian understanding of democracy. Few aside from the ruling AKP’s most loyal supporters will accept the official narrative, in which Turkey, uniquely in the world, is a country where the opposition and not the government commits electoral fraud. The economic ramifications are also considerable: The Turkish lira continued to slide in spite of government efforts to shore it up, and capital flight from Turkey is likely to increase further, worsening an already highly problematic economic situation. In other words, the Turkish leadership is taking strong risks for the sake of a municipal election-especially given that the rerun might backfire, as the widespread sense of injustice may bring increased turnout to support the opposition. Indeed, polls in mid-June show that CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu has opened a lead over AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım.

It is easy to characterize the move to cancel the election results as a “Hail Mary” by a power-hungry President Erdoğan. But a closer examination of the past few weeks suggests otherwise: In conformity with a growing trend in recent years, it is not Erdoğan but the Turkish nationalist Right that has been in the driver’s seat. Indeed, this process cements the role of Turkish nationalism as the organizing principle of Turkish politics for the foreseeable future. But it also exposes deep rifts within the ruling coalition.

The conventional wisdom on Turkish affairs is that President Erdoğan has acquired a firm grip on the country and its government, and that he has succeeded in establishing himself as a new Sultan. Erdoğan is certainly the most powerful political figure in Turkish history since Kemal Atatürk founded the republic in 1923, and he has towered over the political scene since he first was elected in 2002. But behind these facts lies the reality that Erdoğan has constantly relied on political alliances to rule the country, not least because he simply lacks sufficient numbers of followers who are both loyal and capable. His rise to prominence was possible because he secured the support of Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia, a significant number of moderate Kurdish politicians, and, most importantly, the large social movement led by the reclusive, Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen. The latter was crucial because the Gülen movement’s focus on education has led it to produce thousands of well-educated professionals who gradually rose to positions of influence or control within various agencies of the Turkish state.

By contrast, one of Erdoğan’s most outspoken adversaries was the nationalist MHP’s leader, Devlet Bahçeli. Bahçeli decried in the harshest term Erdoğan’s decision to negotiate with the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, Abdullah Öcalan, in an effort to find a solution to the country’s long-running Kurdish problem. He was similarly critical of the jailing, on the flimsiest of charges, of hundreds of retired and serving military officers.

All that began to change in 2013, when the relationship between Erdoğan and Gülen turned sour. Increasingly isolated, Erdoğan struck a more conciliatory tone with the military by freeing some jailed flag officers. By 2015, his isolation deepened after his treatment of the Kobani crisis in Syria alienated Turkey’s Kurds, delivering him a defeat in the June 2015 parliamentary elections. Erdoğan reacted by promptly ending talks with the Kurds, and instead struck up an alliance with the MHP, as well as with nationalist-minded forces in state institutions. Turkey once again adopted a military solution to the Kurdish problem, which had the added benefit of prompting voters to rally around the flag in a rerun parliamentary election in November of that year. Ever since, MHP support has been crucial to Erdoğan’s electoral victories.

Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

A key question in the treatment of the March 31 election results is who has been the driving force behind the cancellation of the election. In this, a distinction appeared between President Erdoğan and his alliance partner, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party Devlet Bahçeli. Erdoğan was hardly pleased by the loss in Istanbul, but his voicing of allegations of irregularities appeared half-hearted. At times, he appeared to concede defeat; and he certainly appeared willing to take on a conciliatory tone. Most notably, after a recount confirmed Ekrem Imamoglu’s victory in Istanbul, Erdoğan on April 19 voiced his belief that it was time for “shaking hands, embracing one another and strengthening or unity and solidarity.” He then floated the idea of a “Turkey alliance,” aiming to put aside all political differences for the sake of the country.

This raised eyebrows, as Erdoğan’s AKP was locked in a “People’s Alliance” with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Meanwhile, Erdoğan also downplayed the role of the MHP, and pointed to the party’s 7 percent share of the vote. In so doing, he appeared to be appealing to the significant constituency within his own party that saw the alliance with the MHP as a mistake, and who have been unhappy with the direction of the country under the presidential system. Indeed, his former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has publicly slammed the alliance, and both he and former President Abdullah Gül are rumored to be planning to start new political initiatives.

Erdoğan only decisively called for a rerun on May 4, a few days before the Supreme Electoral Commission canceled the vote. This stands in sharp contrast to Devlet Bahçeli’s position. For one, Bahçeli publicly rebuked Erdoğan for his demeaning comments on the MHP’s vote share as “unjust and unfair,” pointing out its low share of the total vote was the result of the People’s Alliance’s joint candidates in big cities running on an AKP ticket. In this, Bahçeli was correct: In almost all provinces where the AKP and MHP fielded separate candidates, the AKP lost votes and the MHP gained. Compared to the 2018 parliamentary election, the AKP lost up to a quarter of its votes in provinces like Elazığ, Kastamonu, Afyon, Aksaray, Tokat, Erzincan and Kütahya. Meanwhile, the MHP share of the vote increased markedly-even doubling in several provinces. In other words, it appears that many voters disaffected with Erdoğan are now supporting the MHP, and by some counts the MHP was the big winner of the local elections.

More importantly, as Halil Karaveli has detailed, following the March 31 vote Bahçeli rapidly emerged as the most uncompromising advocate of annulling the Istanbul election and organizing a rerun. He repeatedly characterized the matter as one of “national survival,” and accused the opposition of having won only thanks to the support of the Kurdish separatist PKK and the outlawed Fethullah Gülen movement, whom the government accuses of orchestrating the July 2016 military coup. In a carefully crafted May 1 speech, Bahçeli also used sharp terms to admonish Erdoğan for his conciliatory talk of a “Turkey alliance.” Against the background of the challenges and threats facing the nation’s survival, he said, questioning the “People’s Alliance” is tantamount to questioning the Turkish nation itself and putting the country’s survival at risk. This forced Erdoğan to promptly retort he had no intention of abolishing the People’s Alliance. Tellingly, he has not raised the idea of a “Turkey Alliance” again. The demeanor of the two leaders would prompt anyone who did not know better to assume that Bahçeli, not Erdoğan, was the senior partner in the alliance.

What’s the Fuss About?

Why, then, this talk of “national survival” over a municipal election decided by the thinnest of margins? Why couldn’t Erdoğan and Bahçeli leverage their control of the national executive to allow Imamoglu to take office while undermining him at every turn, waiting patiently to recapture Istanbul with a stronger candidate four years later?

A partial answer lies in the importance of Istanbul for the AKP’s clientelism and patronage network. The metropolis’s procurement is the cash cow on which Erdoğan built a new network of Islamist tycoons loyal to him. Losing Istanbul would not only mean losing that, but potentially unpleasant revelations of corruption. Still, the key lies in the origins and justification of Turkey’s presidential system itself.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began to raise the possibility of altering Turkey’s constitutional system almost a decade ago. He failed to obtain necessary support for a number of years; in fact, he went so far as to implement a presidential system de facto, having himself elected to the presidency in 2014. But for his first term in office, he ruled under a constitution in which the Presidency’s powers were largely ceremonial. Turkey remained a parliamentary republic in theory, but in practice, it was ruled as if the presidential system had already been adopted. Erdoğan then proceeded to argue that the constitution should be changed to reflect the reality that was in fact in place.

Until 2016, Erdoğan did not have enough support to ensure the passage of such a referendum. As noted, Bahçeli’s MHP was an ardent critic of Erdoğan, something that began to change in 2015. When the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June general elections that year, this provided a golden opportunity for the opposition to take power. But Bahçeli refused to accept any participation in government-specifically not one depending on the support of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), which had shocked the Turkish political system by gaining as many seats as the MHP. Bahçeli’s recalcitrance allowed Erdoğan to call new elections that November. In the intervening months, Erdoğan made a 180-degree turn on the MHP’s pet issue, the Kurdish problem: Rather than negotiating with Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists, as Erdoğan had sought to do for several years, he now ordered a military offensive that led to urban warfare in many cities and towns of Turkey’s southeast, and to the leveling of many neighborhoods where Kurdish nationalism ran strong. Riding a nationalist wave, Erdoğan’s AKP proceeded to regain its majority that November.

It should be noted that this nationalist wave was not entirely fabricated: It rested on considerable popular opinion. Erdoğan’s peace overtures toward the Kurds had coincided with America’s support for the Kurdish YPG militias in northern Syria-which, in turn, almost everyone accepts are thinly veiled subsidiaries of the PKK, an organization that has fought Turkey for decades and that America itself considers a terrorist organization. Washington’s assurances that this was only a matter of defeating the Islamic State fell on deaf ears. This was the case in part because the chief result of the peace process was to allow the PKK to consolidate and advance its positions in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania-based Gülen had ramped up his political struggle with Erdoğan, feeding into long-standing conspiracy theories that Gülen, on account of his American residence, was in fact a CIA asset.

This perfect storm came to unite Erdoğan and the nationalists, both of whom saw an American hand behind not only the Kurdish problem but also the Gülen conspiracy. This alliance was consummated by the failed July 2016 coup, which nearly everyone in Turkey agree was orchestrated by Gülen’s organization. Enter the presidential system, which Bahçeli and the MHP had strongly opposed up to that point. On October 11, Bahçeli announced his endorsement of the transition to a presidential system; it passed parliament three months later and was narrowly approved by referendum in April 2017. The next year, he formally launched the idea of a “People’s Alliance” with the AKP, which enabled Erdoğan to win re-election in June of that year, and which also allowed the alliance to secure a continued parliamentary majority.

Bahçeli, being the representative of the Turkish nationalist Right, had in fact been the prime beneficiary of the conflict between Erdoğan and Gülen. This civil war between two sections of Turkish political Islam not only compromised popular support for Islamist ideology; it also led to the purging of tens of thousands of alleged Gülen supporters in the bureaucracy and thus created a vacuum that nationalist forces within the state rapidly filled. Meanwhile, alarmingly for the Turkish nationalists, the 2015 elections had shown that Kurdish nationalists were now positioned to be the kingmakers of Turkish politics. This was unacceptable: Ever since the 1983 military-inspired constitution, Turkey had implemented a 10 percent threshold to parliament mainly to deny to Kurdish nationalism parliamentary representation and thus political influence. But Bahçeli’s about-face had led to a rebellion within his own ranks and the creation of a splinter party, the Good Party, led by former Interior Minister Meral Akșener. Thus, ironically, the Kurdish nationalist party was practically assured to maintain more than 10 percent support, while Bahçeli’s own party was at risk of failing to pass the threshold.

To Turkish nationalists in the MHP and within the state, this made the transition to a presidential system an imperative. Only that system could neuter Kurdish nationalism, because it rendered parliament more or less redundant, concentrating power in an elected executive that Kurdish nationalists would never win. It mattered less that this meant giving Erdoğan what he wanted: The AKP was now weakened enough that it would remain dependent on nationalist support, and the People’s Alliance ensured it would continue to implement nationalist policies in areas of key concern to the MHP.

There was only one slight problem. By amending the electoral code to allow for alliances between parties, the AKP and MHP inadvertently presented the opposition with a credible path to power. In the 2018 parliamentary election, to assuage nationalist feelings, the key opposition parties refrained from including the Kurdish nationalist HDP in their coalition. But in the 2018 mayoral race in Istanbul, the HDP explicitly signaled its support for Imamoğlu, urging the city’s millions of Kurdish voters to push him to victory. If Kurds could push an opposition candidate to victory in Istanbul, the same could happen on the national scene. In other words, Istanbul had jeopardized the nationalist plan to suppress Kurdish nationalism through the presidential system.

Lest anyone doubt that this is a paramount goal, witness the pro-government press’s aggressive labeling of both CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Akșener as traitors to the Turkish nation. This culminated in the attempted lynching of Kılıçdaroğlu at the funeral of a slain Turkish soldier on April 21. Tellingly, both Bahçeli and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu refused to condemn the incident, blaming it on Kılıçdaroğlu himself.

A Rising Nationalist Tide

Turkish nationalism has risen to become the dominant political current in present-day Turkey. In fact, it has come to eclipse-at least for now-the conflict between Erdoğan’s Islamism and the opposition’s secularism.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party dubs itself social-democratic, but its star candidates look more like old-fashioned nationalists. Bahçeli’s outrage against Ekrem Imamoglu’s victory in Istanbul is ironic: Imamoglu hails from a conservative family in Trabzon on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. His father cut his political teeth in the center-Right and in the moderately nationalist Motherland party of former President Turgut Özal, and both senior and junior Imamoglu have been viewed positively by Turkey’s nationalist movement.  In his election campaign, Imamoglu underscored his nationalist and religious credentials. Lest anyone harbor any doubts, on April 4-as if appealing to the powers that be not to cancel his election-he took to Twitter to issue a respectful commemoration on the anniversary of the death of Alparslan Türkeș, Turkey’s legendary nationalist firebrand agitator.

As for Mansur Yavaș, who won the mayoral election in Ankara, there is not even a shadow of doubt: Yavaș joined the MHP exactly 30 years ago, and served as head of an Ankara municipality for a decade. He first ran for Mayor on the MHP ticket in 2009, before switching parties to the CHP. Even party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose Kurdish ancestry and left-wing roots make him a bad fit for the far Right, went out of his way to pay homage to Turkish nationalism. At selected campaign stops, he went so far as to make the hand sign of the gray wolf, a symbol of Turkish far Right nationalism.

Erdoğan, too, deployed the gray wolf sign at rallies across the country, and his rhetoric in recent years has shifted in tone from Islamist to much more nationalist. Nevertheless, Erdoğan remains at heart an Islamist, not a nationalist. And as much as he plays the nationalist card, Turkey’s nationalists are not fooled. They have not forgotten the pro-Kurdish policies of his early tenure, which they believe undermined the country’s integrity. Nor do they disregard the fact that Erdoğan allowed Gülen’s followers to take over the bureaucracy and only a few years ago joined them in the jailing, on trumped-up charges, of dozens of nationalist senior military officers.

Erdoğan may be trying to ride the nationalist wave, but the past two years show that he has lost control over it. Had it not been for nationalist support, he would not have won re-election last year. And without the nationalists, he has no majority in parliament. It is no exaggeration to say that the nationalists presently control Turkey’s security policy, and it is only a slight exaggeration to state that Erdoğan remains in power at the mercy of the nationalists.

Implications for American Policy

At this time of deep problems in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, it is crucial for American policymakers to thoroughly analyze the country’s political dynamics. Clearly, if one reads the issue in Turkey as being Erdoğan’s “sultanism,” that would call for one set of conclusions. But if the reality is more complicated, as I argue here, that presents a different set of challenges and opportunities to U.S. policy. If Turkey’s regime is not monolithic but in fact quite divided and fragile, what does that mean for U.S. policy?

The first and most important implication is that it might be too early to give up on Turkey. Erdoğan may have wanted a consolidated strongman regime, but he has yet to achieve it. In fact, as Karaveli argues, he has presided over a system where first Gülenists and now nationalists are using the institutions of the state to their own advantage, for goals that differs from Erdoğan’s. The extent to which the “People’s Alliance” is viable is not clear. But if history is any guide, the longevity of informal alignments of power in Turkey is not impressive. Given the tensions that have already emerged into the open, there is little reason to think the Islamist-nationalist alliance will be any different.

If tensions between Erdoğan and the nationalists grow, American policies could tip the scales in one side’s favor. If so, should the U.S. empower Erdoğan, or strike a deal with the nationalists? Determining whether either option is feasible, and which one better suits America’s interests, may be more complicated than it seems. Erdoğan’s Islamist instincts belie a worldview that is fundamentally anti-American. But paradoxically, a weakened Erdoğan may be more willing to compromise on matters important to American national security in the short term, including Syria and the Kurdish question. He may also be willing to extend a hand to the opposition for a time, but that period is not likely to last. Erdoğan has repeatedly showed his penchant for authoritarian rule.

Turkey’s nationalists may also appear anti-American, but their grievances are about concrete and substantial matters, such as U.S. support for PKK-aligned groups in Syria and America’s harboring of Gülen. They are unlikely to budge on these issues, which they define as existential. But crucially, anti-Americanism is not enshrined in their very ideology and worldview. The United States could hammer out an understanding with them that could, over time, restore the Turkish-American relationship. But this would require several acts of good faith, including curtailing U.S. ties to Syrian Kurds and indicating, at the very least,  American apprehensions about the Gülen network.

Deciding which way the United States should go requires careful consideration. But one thing is clear: America has done very little over the past decade to reach out to nationalist constituencies in Turkey. Assuming the rise of Turkish nationalism won’t stop here, now may be a good time to start.

Svante E. Cornell is director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

Originally appeared in The American Interest on June 18, 2019.