"Turkey First" populism could isolate country - think tank

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is striving to create a national founding myth for its vision of a “New Turkey”, but veneration for the Republic of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk remains a rare factor unifying opinion across party lines, according to analysis published by the Washington DC think tank Center for American Progress.

The Center’s analysis supplements data published on Monday in a far-reaching study that charted Turks’ views on their national identity and government. One significant finding from the report, based on a broad nationwide survey, describes the rise of a right-wing populism which parallels that seen in Europe and the United States.

“There may be a “Turkey First” nativist constituency of people angry about the influence of external powers over Turkey, Ankara’s inability to chart its own course, a perceived lack of domestic production (particularly of machinery and military hardware), and the visibility of Syrian refugees. These attitudes, however, are shared across the political spectrum and may not necessarily represent a coherent constituency; there are, of course, fascinating parallels here to the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and Europe. Erdoğan and the AKP’s nationalist pivot may be driven in part by the imperative to appeal to these currents.”

This attitude is reflected in the research participants’ attitude to Turkish foreign policy, with most Turks across all political lines favouring a “go-it-alone” approach that distances them from their traditional allies in the United States and Europe.

It was also starkly visible in the overwhelming agreement with the idea that “global and political elites have too much power over Turkey and should be resisted”.

The report described the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s efforts to forge a nationalist mythos on Turkey based on the successful resistance against the coup attempt in July, 2016.

“For Erdoğan, with no victorious independence war to elevate him alongside the Republic’s founder, July 15 serves several purposes. In one light, July 15 is the closest thing to a military victory Erdoğan has, aside from a wheezing and partial victory in the Euphrates Shield operation in Syria. This martial component is perhaps important, given many nationalist Turks’ self-perception of Turkey as a “warrior tribe” and the militaristic nature of Turkish history as taught in primary school curricula and presented in modern popular culture.”

The findings add that there is a slightly higher proportion of the country that feels the government’s harsh crackdown after the coup attempt was appropriate, than those who believe it is being used to silence dissent.

While there are conflicting opinions about the response to the coup attempt among conservative Turks, they are “largely based on the feeling that it has not gone far enough rather than concern about a purge run amok,” according to the research.

Erdoğan himself has proven to be an increasingly divisive leader, according to the Center. While he remains the most popular politician in the country, it reports “substantial criticism of him personally as well as generalized discontent,” with young AKP voters particularly holding a negative view of the president.

Erdoğan’s most strident support comes from women voters of the AKP, according to the Center. This, it posits, may be due to the “spatial realities of their lives”, with more of these voters spending their time “at home, often watching television, where Erdoğan is ubiquitous.”

The findings also showed these voters to be more stringently nationalistic and “significantly harsher in their views of political opponents” than their male counterparts.

One of the significant findings shows a widespread reverence for the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the secular ideology and reforms that he built the country with.

“Atatürk remains by far the most influential touchstone for Turks of all political stripes, and support for his legacy is one of the few points of consensus in the body politic, although that legacy is often interpreted in very different ways. Turkey is currently in a contested process of redefining Atatürk’s legacy and using it to establish political legitimacy.”

The majority of Turks from all backgrounds agreed that Turkey should be a secular state with no official state religion, while one third of voters for the ruling party believed that Atatürk’s reforms were “under attack”, the writeup noted.

Another unifying factor discovered in the research is the presence of 3.5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war, which most Turks oppose.

“There is deep resentment—particularly among nationalist Turks—of the large presence of Syrian refugees, especially in major urban areas. Indeed, to the extent that there is meaningful right-wing dissent, it is grounded in anger about the government’s admirable efforts to aid the displaced Syrian population and the perception that this assistance is coming at the expense of support to Turkish citizens. Indeed, Syrian refugees are the only group with favorability ratings as low as those given to the United States by poll respondents.”