Jun 9, 2007
By Mehmet Kalyoncu
The timing of the Turkish army’s dramatic, though long expected, military move against the PKK across the Iraqi border has some suspecting that there is more than exigency behind the bold offensive. Considering that the pivotal Turkish parliamentary elections are due next month, is not the northern Iraq offensive really all about channeling the surging “patriotism’ of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to erode votes from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of candidate and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
Ever since the Turkish military’s digital intervention with the civilian administration on April 27th, there has been no shortage of political crises, each one causing the democratic process in the country to falter. The generals’ e-memorandum followed the halted parliamentary voting for president out of which the Republican People’s Party (CHP) managed to produce a regime threat. Then came the military’s insistence for an immediate cross-border operation against the Kurdish PKK camps in Northern Iraq, which is nowadays pronounced to possibly deal with the Barzani government as well.
At the same time, Turkey has gone into pre-election mode, and those parties who are bashing the AKP government for its alleged inability to deal with the most severe national security threat, most notably the MHP), now the main contender, have boosted their popular support. The phenomenon of politically expedient MHP nationalism has much less to do with the PKK or the so-called independent Kurdish state than it does with the parliamentary elections of July 22.
Secular vs. Islamist — OUT / Islamist vs. Nationalist — IN
For a long time, Turkish society was easily split and polarized along the lines of the secular-minded vs. the Islamists. However, the AK Party’s record over the last four and a half years has changed the whole equation, thereby making it less possible, if not impossible, to identify an Islamist counterpart or threat against the secular regime of the Republic.
This record has been noted by Western observers as well. “Mr. Erdogan’s government has been Turkey’s most successful in half a century,” argued the Economist in May. “After years of macroeconomic instability, growth has been steady and strong, inflation has been controlled and foreign investment has shot up. Even more impressive are the judicial and constitutional reforms that the AK government has pushed through. Corruption remains a blemish, but there is no sign of the government trying to overturn Turkey’s secular order. The record amply justifies Mr. Erdogan’s biggest achievement: to persuade the EU to open membership talks, over 40 years after a much less impressive Turkey first expressed its wish to join.”1
Nevertheless, ethnic Turkish vs. Kurdish nationalism fomented by the surge of PKK activities in the southeastern border of Turkey still provides fertile ground to polarize the country and evenly split the electoral vote. Given the hitherto conciliatory attitude of the mildly Islamist AK Party towards the secular establishment, its unprecedented economic and political successes, and finally its deliberate effort to avoid hot button issues such as the wearing of the head scarf depleted options for many in the ultra-secular circles to attack the AK Party.
Nevertheless, the PKK question and the possibility, perceived as a looming threat, of an independent Kurdish state have always been the weak spot of the AK Party, whose very legitimacy both at home and abroad is pretty much dependent on its continuous commitment to the EU and the United States- both of which seem profoundly allergic to any sort of cross-border military operation by the Turkish military. Therefore, the matter of dealing (or not dealing) with those two imminent threats is literally the only ground on which the AK Party government’s popular prestige could be undermined.
A less effective, but not totally ignorable, issue to be exploited is that of corruption. Yet given all the other parties’ records on corruption, it would be futile to attack the AK government with such allegations. It would in fact prove ineffective, especially so for the Nationalist Action Party, whose former minister has recently been sentenced with the highest corruption charges in the Republic’s history.
When it comes to exploiting popular sentiment over the Kurdish secessionist issue, however, the MHP has proven by far the most suitable contender against the AK Party. In his public rallies, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli frequently accuses the AKP government of being sluggish and dependent on the United States and the European Union to deal with the most severe national security threat, the PKK.2 Bahceli’s inflammatory and nationalistic speeches seem to be paying off. Recent polls about the upcoming parliamentary elections and the long debated cross-border military operation in Northern Iraq indicate that the new fault lines of “Islamists vs. nationalists” have already taken shape, rapidly closing the gap between the AKP and MHP constituencies.
The Polls: Changing Numbers
Two recent online polls, conducted by Turkish polling groups Turkiyesecimleri.com and Secimsonucu.com asked the participants to identify which political party they would vote for in the upcoming July 22 parliamentary elections, indicating a sharp increase in the expected vote count for the MHP, a slight increase or decrease respectively in the AK Party votes and an absolute decline in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) votes.
According to the first poll, which surveyed some 159,897 people, the top-three ranking is as follows: the AK Party (39.19%), the MHP (24.6 %), and then the CHP (12.72%). Compared to the November 3rd 2002 election results, which brought the AK Party into office with a sweeping electoral majority (34.38%) while making the CHP have to be content with 19.39% and leaving the MHP outside the parliament with only 8.36% (below the 10 % threshold), the poll shows a plummeting in the CHP votes whereas a sharp, almost incomprehensible, surge in the MHP votes has been registered. The second poll, to which some 224,328 people responded, demonstrates the same pattern of change: the AK Party in the lead at 32%, followed by the MHP with 21%, and finally the CHP at 16%.
What can possibly explain this pattern? Why did not the decline in the CHP votes, the main rival to the AKP, reflect as an increase in votes for the latter? And what caused such a radical increase in the popularity the MHP, which today offers essentially nothing more than it ever has, and which could not even get into the parliament five years ago?
The recent presidential election process, which was eventually aborted and delayed until after the parliamentary elections, has in fact been a political showdown between the AK Party and the CHP. The latter’s extreme tactics, such as invoking military intervention to halt the AKP majority parliament voting for the president, and making it a matter of regime threat have alienated a substantial number of its own constituency. These tactics have in fact also resulted in the resignation of some of the party’s deputies. They have publicly stated that the reason for their resignation was their party’s anti-democratic attitude toward the presidential elections. The public opinion polls were at the same time hinting that a growing number of people from center left and center right parties were gravitating toward the AK Party, thereby hinting that a second reactionary vote explosion would almost double the AKP votes.
However, that old standard-bearer of nationalism, the MHP, has instead emerged as a main contender to the incumbent AK Party, thanks to leader Bahceli’s inflammatory speeches. They have played on wounded pride among the Turkish people over the Iraq invasion and resulting deterioration of the security situation in the border area, and so fueled popular unrest against the AK Party government. Essentially, the MHP leader is accusing the government of being a mere puppet in the hands of the United States and the European Union, unable or unwilling to assert itself to safeguard national security against Kurdish insurrectionists.
An example of this rhetoric manifested in a recent rally speech in the eastern Anatolian town of Erzurum, a place well known for the strength of its nationalist sentiment. Bahceli urged PM Erdogan to unleash the army in order to erect the Turkish flag at the top of Mount Qandil, where the PKK terrorists are based in Northern Iraq.3
According to another poll carried out by the website Turkiyesecimleri.com, to which some 10,211 people responded, 72.12% of Turks support military intervention in Northern Iraq, while 13.42% oppose it outright, A slightly higher figure (14.46%) prefer a diplomatic solution. Simultaneous developments such as the confrontation between Ankara and Iraqi Kurdish leader Barzani, the AKP Government’s hopeless wait for action from the United States against the PKK, and the surge in the MHP votes, show that fanning the nationalistic sentiments against the AKP government who seem sluggish to deal with the most imminent national security threat is the best strategy to garner popular support nowadays.
It is hardly difficult to realize that neither can the Nationalist Action Party win the elections simply by bashing the AK Party for its failure to deal with the PKK, nor can the Republican People’s Party (CHP) prevent the AK Party from retaining office by portraying it as a major threat to the secular regime.
However, their concerted effort before the elections and in a future parliamentary coalition after the election will dramatically curb the AK Party’s ability to govern. The result will likely manifest itself not only in a slowdown in the EU accession process, but also in a more consistently aggressive attitude toward the Kurds of Northern Iraq. In this equation the Turkmen minority of that region, whose rights Turkey claims to be protecting, will also assume greater importance.
What is at Stake for the AKP, the US and the EU?
Unless the United States and the European Union change their course against the PKK and provide substantial assistance to the AKP government to tackle the terrorist organization, Turkish democracy, which has so far managed avoiding a repeat of the lively old tradition of the military coup, will be exposed to a civilian one. That is, the AK government will simply be punished by a sizeable moderately nationalist vote at the ballot box, just because of its compliance with the United States and the European Union, and its seemingly sluggish approach to the national security threat.
No matter what will be considered as the reason for the AK Party losing its mandate and Turkey returning back to the chronically ineffective coalition governments that preceded this government, for majority mainstream voters in Turkey and for the moderate majority in the broader Muslim world, the reason for the democratic failure will be simple: the United States and the European Union, whose support for democratic change in the Muslim world is perceived simply as shallow rhetoric. Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan newspaper, says the Turkish experience has broader implications: “If that experience fails,” he writes, “it will be a setback for modern Islamist movements and it will be a disaster for the western dream of encouraging a secular form of Islam.”4
Certainly, there are and will be interest groups in both Washington and Brussels whose primary objective is not to make sure a sustainable democracy takes root in Turkey but to secure a government in Ankara that would be more compliant with their narrow interests than the AKP government has been. However, policy makers in both capitals should act according to their respective country’s and Union’s long-term interests. In his 1997 tome, The Grand Chessboard, the veteran American diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski provided a definitive account of how the United States’ and the European Union’s long-term interests are tightly intertwined with sustainable stability in Turkey: “Turkey’s evolution and orientation are likely to be especially decisive for the Caucasian states. If Turkey sustains its path to Europe — and if Europe does not close its doors to Turkey — the states of the Caucasus are also likely to gravitate into the European orbit, a prospect they fervently desire. But if Turkey’s Europeanization grinds to a halt, for either internal or external reasons, then Georgia and Armenia will have no choice but to adapt to Russia’s inclinations.”5
Recent developments prove that Azerbaijan could also face a similar fate. In complete disregard for what Baku has to say about it, Russian President Vladimir Putin counter-proposed his American counterpart George W. Bush’s proposal to install a European missile defense shield in a facility in Azerbaijan, which was built during Soviet times, and is still available for Russia’s use under a continuing agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan.6 Paralyzed with its own chronic problems and likely to experience major blunders over its EU accession with France’s Nicholas Sarkozy, Ankara is far from recognizing the possible political and security implications of Moscow’s growing influence in the region, let alone somehow being able to counter it.
Finally, Ofra Bengio’s reminder about the background of the rising National Action Party (MHP), whose supporters were active recently to publish and distribute Metal Firtina, the fiction prophesying a major war between Turkey and the United States, hints at what we can expect regarding the possible changes in the Turkish public opinion: “[m]ost of the parties or groupings had in their background anti-Semitic tendencies. This was especially true of the Republican Peasants’ and National Party (Cumhuriyetci Koylu Millet Partisi, CKMP), which later became the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), headed by Alpaslan Turkes. In the 1930s the Turkish ultranationalists were strongly influenced by Nazi propaganda, and anti-Semitism became one of their trademarks… Hitler’s Mein Kampf was published and extensively distributed by Turkish nationalists.”7
1 “Turkey: The Battle for Turkey’s Soul”, The Economist May 3rd 2007 available at http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9116747 (accessed on June 6, 2007)
2 “Bahceli, AK Parti’ye yuklendi”, Zaman available at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=547628&keyfield=6465766C65742062616863656C69 (accessed on June 5, 2007)
3 “Bahceli, AK Parti’ye yuklendi”, Zaman available at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=547628&keyfield=6465766C65742062616863656C69 (accessed on June 5, 2007)