The Balkans factor in the Turkish election

The Balkans have had a special place in Turkish politics over the past century. It was there that its defining feature — fierce nationalism — got off the ground in the early 1900s.

The Young Ottomans movement became the Young Turks. Turkish officers posted in the Balkans before the first world war were sympathetic to the ideas that formed the Turkish republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk was born in Thessaloniki, once part of the Ottoman Empire and now part of Greece.

This lends an interesting note of irony to the current Turkish president’s choice of Bosnia for a rally ahead of snap elections on June 24. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan picked Bosnia as the only European venue to campaign after three EU countries refused to allow Turkish politicians from campaigning on their soil.

Thousands of Erdogan’s devoted followers arrived in Sarajevo from various parts of Europe to see and hear him — and crucially — to cheer him on. Interestingly, while in Bosnia on May 20, Erdogan raised the subject of an assassination plot against him. It evoked associations with what happened in Sarajevo in the months leading up to the first world war.

Having abandoned many of his pious Kurdish voters in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces, Erdogan now seems to want to extend his constituency beyond Turkey’s borders. In Sarajevo, he brought up Ottoman grandeur and bashed the West. “European countries claiming to be the cradle of civilisation have failed,” he said, adding that voters would “not only be choosing a president and deputies” in parliament but also “making a decision for our country’s upcoming century.”

The vote will decide the nature of Turkey’s government and democratic freedoms for the foreseeable future. With less than a month to go before the election, Erdogan doesn’t seem to care about European concerns over his badly concealed irredentism. However, he is aware that two of his main political challengers have roots in Thessaloniki.

Though Meral Aksener, leader of the relatively new Iyi party, was born in Turkey, her parents were part of the massive population exchange between Ataturk and his Greek counterpart Eleftherios Venizelos in 1923. The swap of Turkish and Greek subjects of the collapsed Ottoman Empire was part of a mutually agreed, peaceful and successful project that could, in some ways, be considered ethnic cleansing.

Muharrem Ince, the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP’s) nominee for president, claims his paternal grandparents were from Thessaloniki.

For Erdogan, the Balkan expansion of his constituency is a pipe dream.

Ince poses a considerable challenge. Ten years younger than Erdogan, Ince is a worthy match for the president. His talent for riposte has energised CHP rallies. Even so, Ince may be swimming upstream. The anti-Erdogan camp may be hoping Ince will successfully challenge Erdogan if the presidential election goes into a second round.

However, a recent poll by MAK Consultancy shows Ince at 23.9% while Erdogan is far ahead with 51.4%. MAK’s polling is generally considered reliable and, if the numbers are right, Erdogan would win in the first round, eliminating the chance for Ince to challenge him one-on-one.

The main problem for Ince — as well as with Aksener — is that neither is seen as devout as Erdogan. Ince and Aksener employ populist rhetoric and Turkish nationalism. Both have made negative comments about Syrian refugees in Turkey. Both have taken anti-Western positions. However, even though both seem to be trying to edge closer to the mosque, their devout credentials may be suspect to pious, solidly Erdogan-supporting voters.

In other words, Ince and Aksener may run into resistance posed by the collective memory of conservative voters and the new middle classes. They fear a return to the old days of military authority.

Perhaps this is why Erdogan seems confident. He is more focused on dealing with economic turbulence than on attacking Ince and Aksener in his trademark pugnacious style.

The asymmetrical campaign continues and in the absence of independent television news, Erdogan’s challengers can only hope he will trip himself up.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.