Creating new perspectives since 2009

Nationalism is not on the rise in Turkiye

May 25, 2023 at 4:30 pm

People carry Turkish flag during march held to mark 19th May Commemoration of Ataturk, Youth and Sports Day in Aksaray, Turkiye on May 19, 2022. [Adem Koçak – Anadolu Agency]

Turkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) scored a clear victory in both the presidential and parliamentary elections held on 14 May. It won a majority of the seats (323 out of 600) in the Parliament combining with its alliance partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the New Welfare Party (YRP).

The main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), in combination with its alliance partners, including the IYI Party, got 212 of the seats in the Parliament. The rest of the 65 seats went to the Labour and Freedom Alliance which is composed of the Green Left Party (YSP) and Turkiye Workers Party (TIP).

There were four candidates competing for the presidential office. The incumbent President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won 49.5 per cent of the votes, whereas the main opposition’s candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu got 44.9 per cent of the votes. CHP’s 2018 presidential election candidate, Muharrem Ince, who had left his party (CHP) and established the Fatherland Party (MP) after falling apart with the party leadership had to withdraw from the contest just a couple of days before the elections. The Father (ATA) Alliance’s candidate, Sinan Ogan won 5.2 per cent of the votes.

Interestingly, both AK Party’s and Erdogan’s successes and Sinan Ogan’s “outstanding” performance in the elections are asserted to account by the “deep wave” of nationalism in Turkiye. Both local and international media have asserted that Turkiye enjoys a far-right nationalist turn, similar to Europe which has been taken captive by right-wing populist parties and movements for more than a decade. CHP and his partners’ failure to get the majority in the Parliament and Kilicdaroglu’s relatively poor performance against Erdogan in the presidential elections are contended to be caused by their negligence of nationalist votes. Hence, nationalism, especially its far-right version, is argued to have determined the results of the last elections.

 AKP and Erdogan did not resort to nationalism

A closer look at the details of election campaigns and outcomes tells us a different story. First of all, Erdogan, who was very close to winning the presidential seat in the first round, and the AK Party, which got the majority of seats in the Parliament, did not resort to nationalism in the election campaign. On the contrary, Erdogan closed the doors to demands for returning the refugees to their homes. By refusing to bend to anti-refugee policy, he took the risk of losing support or did not appeal to free-floating votes to win. He and his party chose to pursue a positive election campaign that mainly highlighted economic and political accomplishments in the last two decades under AK Party governments.

Only a trace of nationalism could be detected in Erdogan’s attempt to divide the opposition alliance and alienate their nationalist voters by attacking the alleged support given by YSP, which is known as the political extension of PKK terror organisation, to Kilicdaroglu in the presidential elections. However, this is highly doubtful since Erdogan exclusively stressed YSP’s ties with the PKK and the troubles it causes to the Kurdish population.

Nor did CHP’s poor performance and Kilicdaroglu’s failure to beat Erdogan have anything to do with their negligence of nationalist votes. Of course, Kilicdaroglu and his main alliance partner and the head of the IYI Party, Meral Aksener did not directly target AK Party’s policies on refugees in their election campaigns. Nor were they sufficiently responsive toward their supporters’ demands to send the refugees back to their homes. They rather stressed recent economic troubles and promised to unite the society which they claimed to be polarised by the ruling power.

They mainly followed the political strategy, which brought victory in the 2019 local elections in big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, which was shaped around the belief that “mutual respect and love would win over polarisation and hatred”. Indeed, the real factor behind Kilicdaroglu’s failure, as insistently aired by his alliance partner, Aksener, and many CHP and IYI Party supporters before the elections, was that Kilicdaroglu was not a match for Erdogan. Kilicdaroglu figures rather as an ordinary politician who lacks strong leadership traits and charisma in the face of Erdogan, who has all that Kilicdaroglu lacks.

READ: The Syrians in Turkiye are between a rock and a hard place

Victory Party failed to enter the Parliament

Sinan Ogan had previously entered the Parliament in 2011 with the MHP ticket. Yet, he was purged from his party in 2015. In the 14 May elections, he was called ATA alliance’s candidate by Umit Ozdag, the leader of Victory Party (ZP), who was also an ex-MHP member forced to leave his party in 2016. ATA alliance’s election campaign was shaped by militant secularist and ultra-nationalist discourse. Both Ogan and Ozdag had to part ways with MHP, not only because they had an eye on MHP leadership but also, and more importantly, MHP’s softening tone of secularism and nationalism.

After the 7 June, 2015 elections, which resulted in the AK Party’s loss of parliamentary majority to form the government singlehandedly and PKK’s attempts to take advantage of the emerging political instability to trigger strife in the eastern part of the country, MHP decided to change its anti-AK Party stance. The MHP had remained a close ally of the CHP in its struggle against the AK Party from 2007 onwards. It had been following strict anti-AK Party politics based on a nationalist critique of the AK Party’s conciliatory steps towards the excluded sections of society, especially the Kurds. AK Party’s drift towards more defensive and security-oriented politics in the face of mounting attacks of multiple terror organisations and rising popular unrest helped MHP to close the gap. Starting from the meeting at Yenikapı (İstanbul) in August 2016, which hosted almost all the political parties and their leaders and showcased national unity against terror and international interference in the country’s domestic affairs, the AK Party and MHP have formed a political alliance and acted together. The MHP has left aside old-style exclusionary nationalist politics, both in domestic and foreign politics. This caused not only Ozdag’s but also Aksener’s, who also unsuccessfully bid for party leadership and, upon failure, established the IYI Party, abandoning the MHP.

The secular-nationalist Ozdag failed to enter the Parliament in the 14 May elections. The Victory Party could not take a single seat in the Parliament. If nationalism is on the rise, why did it fail to bring success to its main protagonists? Moreover, Ogan got around 5 per cent of the votes and, with this, he has become a key for especially the opposition since they need at least 5 points to catch and beat Erdogan in the run-off election. However, this does not change the fact that he received a small amount of the votes and this does not support the claim that nationalism is enjoying its heyday in Turkiye. Besides, many of those votes for Ogan in effect came from CHP and IYI Party supporters since they had not wanted to see Kilicdaroglu as their candidate in the presidential elections. They did not believe Kilicdaroglu was the right candidate who could beat Erdogan. So Ogan got reactionary votes, but this was primarily caused not by CHP and IYI Party’s negligence of nationalist voices and demands but by their wrong choice of leader.

Run-up to the second round

In the run-up to the second round, CHP seems to have abandoned its conciliatory and soft political discourse based on love and embraced a rather hard line secular-nationalist discourse that seeks to instil fear in the public.

Kilicdaroglu, in one of his recent public statements, portrayed the refugees as a threat to Turkish society, and while the official number is 3.7 million, promised to send 10 million refugees back to their homes. He also sounded to dance around Islamophobia in his critique of religious-conservative HUDA-PAR and YRP’s entrance into the Parliament. Kilicdaroglu, his party, and alliance partners appear to have already bought the argument that nationalism, especially its anti-refugee exclusionary form which is prominent in Europe, is on the rise in Turkiye and thus the elections could only be won by jumping onto this nationalist wave. But this is wrong. It rests on false assessments as shown above. The second round may, therefore, cause an even greater disappointment for the opposition and their supporters.

READ: ‘This is a Turkish Republic; go back to your own country’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.