Gökhan Bacık
Jun 27 2018

Post-election Turkey: The undisputed victory of religious nationalism

Two points on Sunday’s Turkish elections deserve attention:

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected as the first Turkish president with full executive power in a new system where there is no serious mechanism of checks and balances.

However, as the second point, Erdoğan owes his electoral success to the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured 41.8% of the vote in parliamentary polls the same day, almost eight points lower than its performance in the last general election in November 2015. However, Erdoğan’s presidency is possible thanks to MHP support.

The AKP has also lost its majority in parliament and thus the MHP is now a de facto partner of the new power bloc.

Given its strategic support to Erdoğan in the presidential race and its supporting role in parliament, the MHP is likely to act as an equal member of the coalition with the AKP rather than a minority partner.

As a result, the AKP-MHP partnership is now the main power configuration set to dominate Turkish politics as long as the two parties are able to continue their cooperation.

The ideological reflection of this partnership will be a new amalgamation of Islamism and ultra nationalism and will undoubtedly not only affect the state, but also Turkish society.

In retrospect, Islamism and the MHP’s brand of nationalism, ülkücülük in Turkish, have been two major competitors to Kemalism, the brand of secularist nationalism promoted by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And it seems that the two former contenders have come to completely dominate Turkey.

Also analysing MHP and AKP voters, we see a nascent group. Members of this group see the MHP as their political party, but Erdoğan as the unquestionable leader of the country.

The Achilles heel of the AKP-MHP partnership is likely to be the Kurdish problem. The MHP might be critical of new initiatives on the Kurdish issue and might put pressure on the AKP to continue the ongoing hawkish strategy.

But Erdoğan has still a chance given the relatively poor performance of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP was able to overcome the 10-percent threshold to take up seats in parliament with the help of supporters of the main opposition party. Reading these numbers, Erdoğan may push the HDP for a new but a limited Kurdish initiative that not also panic the MHP.

If it can survive, the AKP-MHP alliance will push an intensive cultural and ideological agenda.

Both parties want to reshape Turkey, from education to daily life, in line with their ideologies. So their priority is not only to solve Turkey’s economic and foreign policy problems, but also reorganise Turkish politics and society according to their ideological priorities.

Erdoğan’s status is now comparable to Atatürk in terms of being able to create new a political regime as well as a new society.

He is supported by a large group of people who want Turkey to abandon its secular-Kemalist political and social codes. Instead, their demand is to reinstate a new, more-Islamic political model that recognises Anatolian cultural and lifestyle codes.

Thus one can argue that the historical Turkish model that centred on the agency of pro-Western elites has come to an end. From now on, it is time to witness the central agency of Islamic elites and the model they propose.

Soon, the traditional Kemalist profile of teacher, military officer or judge will disappear, leaving the way for new Islamic profiles.

It is very likely that we can see an Islamic regime in Turkey within five years with tough authoritarian codes. However, if convinced that they no longer face serious political risks, Islamic actors may also try for a moderate Islamic regime. We need time to learn which direction they will direct their enormous political and social mandate.

But in any case, there is a clear fact: Kemalism is no longer the main framework of Turkish politics and society today. Instead, Islam is replacing it.

Strangely enough, it is the MHP that can counterbalance the AKP’s cultural agenda. If both parties continue their partnership, the AKP will probably be the architect of the general strategies and the MHP will make critical fine-tuning.

The MHP’s role will be highly important on issues such as Turkey’s relations with the West including the EU, the Kurdish problem, as well as the Islamisation of the educational system.

The AKP share of the vote was approximately seven points lower than in 2015. But for a party that has ruled Turkey for more than 16 years and given the enormous economic problems the country faces, the AKP’s 42.5 percent of the vote is still a success. How is this possible?

First of all, despite many growing problems, a large part of Turkish society is still happy of with how the AKP governs Turkey. These people do not trust any other party to develop a better agenda for handling Turkey’s problems.

Second is the ideological motivation. Among AKP voters there is a consolidated core that identifies the party with the Islamic cause, i.e. the Islamisation of Turkey. This core group, which is also continuously growing, supports the AKP for mainly ideological reasons and believes no other party can carry out this mission. Thus, no matter how the AKP performs, this core group keeps supporting the party.

Erdoğan is now the absolute ruler of Turkey as the “new sultan”. In the new era, he will not only try to solve Turkey’s problems but also create a new political model with new ideological codes.

Apart from the MHP’s balancing role, there is no other political power that can stop or balance Erdoğan, but Turkey’s real problem is its economy.

Yet, I should unhappily write that “it’s the economy, stupid” narrative might also fail in Turkey as it failed in Venezuela. The globe is nowadays full of leaders who can even survive economic failures.