Mon, 04 Dec 2023

Nationalism has been one of the major themes of the Turkish presidential elections, with both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu using its rhetoric as both sides draw on nationalist parties' support.

Turkey goes to the polls for the second presidential election round on Sunday after Erdogan very nearly clinched it in the first on May 14, winning 49.51 percent of the vote compared to 44.8 percent for Kilicdaroglu.

While the first round score made the second round much less of a contest, the campaign still grabbed the international media's attention this week as the leader of the nationalist, anti-immigration Victory Party Umit Ozdag announced on Wednesday he is backing Kilicdaroglu.

This endorsement is unlikely to make a difference to the second round given the electoral arithmetic; the Victory Party won just 2.2 percent of the vote in the first. Similarly, another nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan endorsed Erdogan after finishing third on May 14 - but analysts observe that Erdogan needs no kingmaker. In any case, it "isn't clear" that either candidate could rely on their voters following their lead, noted Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

>> Read more: Kilicdaroglu faces 'real uphill battle' after Erdogan nearly clinched first-round win

Beneath the surface, Eissenstat suggested, the two candidates' manoeuvrings foreground the significance of 75-year-old Devlet Bahcel, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for more than a quarter of a century. The Erdogan-aligned MHP won just over 10 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections held alongside the first presidential round, highlighting its significance for the president's coalition.

Ozdag and Ogan both have their eyes on picking up Bahceli's role in Turkish politics, Eissenstat said: "Clearly both [...] are looking towards the future and who will become the nominal head of the 'racial right' once Bahceli dies or retires."

Kilicdaroglu's makeover

Ozdag's endorsement highlights an even bigger question for Turkish politics going forward: whether the opposition could juggle support from anti-Erdogan nationalists with outreach to ethnic minorities.

Kilicdaroglu won the backing of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) - making Kurdish voters a crucial pillar of his electoral coalition. Turkish Kurds are a difficult group for any serious presidential contender to ignore if they want to unseat Erdogan, with Kurds making up between 15 and 20 percent of the Turkish population.

Kilicdaroglu's Republican People's Party (CHP) has always had a nationalistic current, having been founded in 1923 as the political vehicle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as he created the Turkish nation-state. Kemalism defies categorisation according to the Western left/right paradigm; it combines pro-European, Atlanticist foreign policy with secularism and a distinctive brand of nationalism in domestic politics. Like other ethnic minorities, Kurds were marginalised in Turkey during Kemalism's eight decades of political hegemony.

Ahead of the first round Kilicdaroglu took a much more emollient position on the Kurdish issue than the CHP's historic stance. Erdogan repeatedly tried to link him to the PKK - the Kurdish militant group classed as a terrorist outfit by the EU and the US as well as Turkey. In response, Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of deploying as a political tactic "a collective stigma" treating millions of Kurds "as terrorists".

But it was always going to be a challenge for Kilicdaroglu to combine the HDP's support with that of nationalist currents within the Nation Alliance, the heterogenous six-party bloc behind him, which the pro-Kurdish party did not join.

As well as more nationalist voices within his own CHP, Kilicdaroglu's Alliance included the nationalist Good Party. This party is naturally at odds with the HDP, having been formed by prominent politicians who broke away from Erdogan-aligned nationalists the MHP. Good Party leader Meral Aksener said last autumn she "will not be at a table where the HDP is present".

Asked about Kilicdaroglu's juggling the Good Party's membership of the Nation Alliance with keeping the HDP's backing, Eissenstat noted that "up through the first round, he did so fairly well".

However, Kilicdaroglu has adopted a divergent tone for the second. He has aligned himself with the Victory Party's stance on immigration in Turkey, vowing to repatriate all refugees currently in the country as he gave the exaggerated figure of 10 million (Turkey hosts nearly 4 million refugees according to the UN, which is still the highest figure of any country in the world).

>> Read more: Migrants bear the brunt of rising nationalism ahead of Turkey's presidential runoff

Kilicdaroglu also now frames the Kurdish issue in a very different way - foregrounding the fight against terrorism, instead of accusing Erdogan of using terrorism as a way of stigmatising millions of Turkish Kurds.

Hence some HDP members reportedly calling for a boycott of Sunday's vote to protect Kilicdaroglu's new rhetoric - although, while criticising Kilicdaroglu, the party's co-leader Pervin Buldan underlined that the priority is to end Erdogan's "one-man regime".

Eissenstat said he expects Kilicdaroglu's pivot and deal with the Victory Party to make it "more difficult" for HDP voters to choose him again in the second round.

MHP 'crucial' for Erdogan

But analysts say it would be a tremendous surprise if Erdogan is not re-elected on Sunday, after he fell short of the threshold by just 0.49 percent in the first round. And the president owes this in no small part to his embrace of nationalism.

During his early years in power after becoming PM in 2003, Erdogan defined himself against the nationalism of his Kemalist antagonists, notably by reaching out to the Kurdish minority. Then he aligned himself with nationalism in 2015, when the last PKK ceasefire ended and the MHP allied with his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The MHP's support is "crucial" for Erdogan, noted Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund's Ankara bureau. "Erdogan would not have a path to victory in either the parliamentary or the presidential elections without the 10 percent that the MHP brings to the table."

The president has also made Turkish nationalism his own - notably when it comes to his combative foreign policy, as evinced by Sweden's still-blocked NATO membership, alongside his use of anti-Western rhetoric for a domestic audience, like when he portrayed Kilicdaroglu as a puppet of Western powers during the campaign.

>> Read more: How the West, Russia see Turkey's presidential elections

Erdogan's electoral base has always been the many socially conservative Muslim voters in the Anatolian heartlands who see him as their champion in the culture wars that have characterised Turkish politics since Ataturk broke the Ottoman Empire's profound links between Islam and politics. So Western observers have long associated Erdogan's core supporters with a focus on religious rather than national identity.

But the grassroots of the AKP and the MHP have converged ideologically over the years, Unluhisarcikli pointed out, meaning "AKP voters are more nationalistic than they were and MHP voters are more [socially] conservative than they were".

"People make too much of the distinction between religious and nationalist voters in Turkey," Eissenstat added. "The vast majority of voters in Turkey are nationalist in the usual sense of the word. The key differences are over particular traditions and key symbols."

It makes sense to think of nationalism as a big victor in these polls given its pervasiveness: "Nationalism is definitely a winner in these elections," the German Marshall Fund's Unluhisarcikli put it.

Nationalism has always been a "powerful factor" in Turkish politics but it is "particularly militant" at present, Eissenstat said. In part, he concluded, this "seems to reflect a growing wave of populism around the world; Turkey, in that sense, isn't so much unusual as emblematic".

Originally published on France24

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