BACKGROUND: As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominates Turkish politics, so does his party. As the local elections of March 29 approaches, there are few signs that the AKP is about to lose its position as the dominant party in the country’s politics. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in particular hopes that its move to nominate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the party’s popular deputy chairman in parliament, as a candidate for the post as mayor of Istanbul will pay off. If the CHP succeeds in dislodging the AKP in Istanbul, it would resonate in national politics as well, given the importance of the city. The secular center-left has not ruled Istanbul since 1994, the year Edogan was elected to the post. Kilicdaroglu owes much of his national popularity to the anti-corruption campaign that he has waged against the ruling party in recent months, and which resulted in the resignation of two AKP deputy party chairmen. With him as candidate, a CHP victory is not entirely out of reach. However, the polls put the incumbent mayor, AKP’s Kadir Topbas – generally deemed to have been a successful manager of Turkey’s biggest city – ahead of Kilicdaroglu.
The CHP’s strategy in the local elections consists of challenging the AKP on two fronts, one of which is the latter party’s home front: the charges of corruption against the AKP are coupled with displays of religious sensitivity, intended to demonstrate that CHP is not anti-religious. Abandoning the secularist rhetoric of the last several years, the CHP is trying hard to make inroads into the conservative electorate. The CHP candidate in the city of Kocaeli, east of Istanbul, notably vowed to establish Koran courses “in every neighborhood”. Responding to criticism from secularist quarters, CHP leader Deniz Baykal designated it as “perverse” to object to the establishment of Koran courses. Istanbul mayor hopeful Kilicdaroglu, himself a member of the liberal Alevi community, which has long been subjected to oppression by the Sunni majority, vowed to embrace the community of the faithful.
Turkish political parties of all colors have always felt the need to show allegiance to religion, and have toyed with popular religious sentiments at least since the introduction of the multi-party system in 1950. In that perspective, the recent adjustments to Islamic conservatism by the so-called secularist opposition do not represent any significant departure from a longstanding tradition. Yet, taken together with the dominance of AKP, the fact that the main opposition party sees no other alternative than trying to duplicate the rhetoric of the ruling party further reinforces the ideological hegemony that Islamic conservatism has come to establish. And in all probability, the efforts of the CHP are in vain. Although the party has never been the kind of “anti-religious” party that it is commonly perceived to have been, that is nevertheless the image that has got stuck to it, and which the CHP will have trouble ever ridding itself of, regardless of how many mosque congregations its candidates visit and pay homage to. Moreover, the CHP is unlikely to sway many voters that consider religion an important issue – other parties will invariably be more Islamic than the CHP.
The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the other of the two main opposition parties,also has an image problem that it seeks to address. The third largest party in parliament, the MHP represents right-wing Turkish nationalism. In the 1970s, the MHP and notably its youth organization the “Grey wolves” was responsible for much of the political violence that cost thousands of lives. Ideologically, the party has its roots in the movement of “Turkism”, which was once fathered by Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924), generally seen as the main ideologue of Turkish nationalism.
Notably, Gökalp sought to create a synthesis reconciling Turkishness, Islam and modernity. He was an early defender of gender equality and secularism, yet he also drew a distinction between being part of the Western civilization in cultural terms – which he refused – and making use of the technological advances of the West. In that sense, Gökalp was a typical representative of the modernist intellectuals in the Muslim world a century ago, who sought to preserve a cultural, Muslim purity while ascertaining the progress of Muslim societies by calling for the adoption of Western techniques. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was in part inspired by the ideas of Gökalp, not least by his thoughts about forming a Turkish nation. Yet Atatürk went much further in a progressive direction; he resolved the contradictions inherent to Gökalp’s ideas, by simply refusing to separate the “techniques” and the culture of Western civilization, proclaiming civilization to be an inseparable unit. Right-wing Turkish nationalists, for their part, have remained trapped in the contradictions of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis of Ziya Gökalp.
IMPLICATIONS: The Nationalist action party’s traditional support base is the religiously conservative and nationalist population of the Anatolian heartland of Turkey. In that respect, the MHP and the AKP compete in the same terrain. Yet, while the AKP has successfully reached out to other groups of voters, notably to the urban and secular center-right, and even to center-left voters, the MHP has traditionally made few inroads in those categories. The latest election in 2007 was partly an exception, as the MHP attracted nationalist and secularist voters with its anti-Western stance (which enjoys popularity among seculars as a result of the support given by the West to the AKP’s Islamic conservatism). Hoping to further improve its chances in the upcoming local elections, the MHP leadership is nominating candidates who do not represent the traditional grassroots of the party. Party leader Devlet Bahceli has also made overtures to the Alevi minority, a dramatic step considering the fact that MHP storm troops and supporters have in the past taken part in violence against Alevis, for instance the riots in Kahramanmaras in 1978 that left over 100 dead.
Today the MHP seeks to occupy an ideological middle terrain where religion, nationalism and a certain kind of modernism are supposed to be able to co-exist harmoniously. In fact, the MHP subsumes much of the traditional, Turkish state ideology. That ideology was always right-wing, and always had a Sunni inclination, although that fact was masked by secularist rhetoric. The main preoccupation of the old republican elite was the preservation of the nation, which in turn led it to allow preeminence to Sunni Islam, while professing secularism. The MHP’s nationalism and its religious conservatism, tempered by a reverence for Atatürk as the founding father of the republic, sits well with traditional republican elite thinking, not least in the military. And as the majority of Turkey’s population is conservative, it is not unreasonable to assume that the MHP is the party that stands the best chance of eventually being able to mount a serious challenge to the dominance of the AKP. The MHP also boosts the only well-organized grassroots organization besides the AKP’s superior party machinery.
It is no secret that the republican elite had hoped that the elections of 2007 would have produced a coalition between the CHP and MHP. However, the MHP’s decision to join hands with the AKP in certain issues caused consternation among the more die-hard secularists, especially when the supposedly secularist MHP encouraged the AKP to amend the constitution in order to lift the ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities. That move was nevertheless in keeping with the MHP’s traditional conservatism. From the secularist perspective, the MHP has displayed a disturbing penchant for playing both fields; yet that is party’s main strength – and would be its main contribution to the resurrection of the old republican system.
CONCLUSIONS: Indeed, if there is one party that would be able to reconcile the world-views of the General staff and the mosque congregations, it is in all likelihood the MHP. However, whether such a reconciliation would also amount to securing a liberal and secular worldview is by no means certain.
MHP representatives are eager to portray their party as the opposite of AKP, as a party in synch with Anatolia’s supposedly moderate and tolerant brand of Islam, while the AKP is portrayed as being under the influence of the Middle East’s more intolerant brand of Islam. And indeed, the major difference between the MHP and the AKP is that the MHP puts national, Turkish identity before religious identity, whereas AKP leaders often appear to be Muslims first and Turks second. However, these distinctions do not always percolate to the grassroots. As shown in a recent study by the Bosphorus University and the Open Society foundation “To be different in Turkey”, the MHP’s supporters (the so-called “idealists” or ülkücüler) appear to be among the organizers of religious intolerance in universities around Anatolia.
Eventually, the MHP can very well become a challenger to AKP. It nevertheless has a long way to travel before it can lay claim to being a force for tolerance. But the party is moving toward the center, as it understands the opportunity arising from the vacuum left behind by the center-right’s collapse. It remains to be seen whether the MHP can succeed where the AKP failed – that is, in becoming a party of the center in deeds and not only in words.