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What drives nationalism in Turkey?
The night of May 14, before election results were clear, hundreds of people gathered in the streets near the İstanbul headquarters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
They played the nationalist anthem Ölürum Türkiye’m from car stereos and flashed the ultranationalist grey wolf hand gesture or Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trademark Rabia sign or some combination of the two.
Streams of flags waved through the air, many bearing the emblem of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and street vendors set up on the pavement, selling scarves and headbands with references to Erdoğan, the Ülkü Ocakları and other nationalist groups.
These were the first celebrations of an apparent electoral shift in Turkish politics. As we’d soon learn, and often hear afterwards, nationalists won the May 14 elections, both through an increased presence in parliament and also through increased leverage on the presidential race, whose winner would likely need support from nationalist voters.
Some of those voters backed Sinan Oğan, the ultranationalist third presidential candidate that took more than five percent of the vote, denying Erdoğan and his main opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu a first-round win.
The results placed Oğan and nationalism in the spotlight over the last week as speculation grew over how and whether he might direct his voters in the second-round vote. Eventually, Oğan endorsed Erdoğan, while his former ally, Zafer Party chair Ümit Ozdağ, endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu.
Kılıçdaroğlu continues consultations with other Ülkücü organizations, but basically the previously unaligned nationalist blocs are splitting into opposing camps ahead of Turkey’s pivotal presidential run-off.
The outcome remains to be seen, but the road to the May 28 vote has placed renewed attention on Turkish nationalists, who’ve been dubbed the ‘kingmakers’ in this year’s elections.
And while it may seem a new wave of nationalism is rising across the country, analysts and voters told Turkey recap it’s more likely recent trends in migration and party alliances are giving new visibility to nationalist undercurrents that have defined the republic since its inception 100 years ago.
Ahead of the second-round vote, both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are using rising anti-refugee rhetoric to appeal directly to nationalists. With the same aims, Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to deflect accusations tying him to outlawed Kurdish militants while linking Erdoğan to the Gülen movement, the group Ankara blames for orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt.
Tough stances against irregular migration and domestic terrorism, along with the preservation of Turkish identity and sovereignty, are top priorities for nationalist voters. And though Sinem Adar, an associate at SWP’s Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS), stresses Turkey has long been a highly nationalist country, she noted these sentiments have strengthened in recent years.
“Bear in mind that since 2015, there is a very heavy nationalistic and militaristic narrative every day from morning till night on the TVs, in the newspapers,” Adar told Turkey recap.
“There is this kind of narrative now, nationalism being the dip dalga [silent wave],” Adar said. “But it is not. Nationalism is the sea itself.”
Turkish Nationalism 101
Looking at the growing representation of Ülkücü or pan-Turkic nationalists in Ankara politics, Selim Koru, a Turkey analyst and author of the Kültürkampf newsletter, places the movements’ appeal in an idea of Turkish exceptionalism as well as the modern need for meaning.
“Especially if we have few means, national identity is the source from which to derive that meaning,” Koru told Turkey recap.
“If you’re a delivery man in central İstanbul, your professional identity might not make you feel ‘special,’ but being a member of the Turkish nation can, and often does – hence the flag imprints on motorcycles,” he continued. “The influx of refugees from primarily Muslim countries has accented that feeling. It’s way to inflate one’s intrinsic value.”
While anti-migrant stances tend to unify nationalists worldwide at surface level, Turkish nationalist voters are divided among a complex array of political parties that may or may not represent their interests at deeper levels.
For example, the nationalist MHP lost some of its anti-Erdoğan supporters after forging an alliance with the AKP. Some of those supporters migrated to İYİ Party, which Meral Akşener established in 2017.
But voters also grew frustrated with İYİ Party, especially after Akşener supported the Kılıçdaroğlu candidacy following a brief protest, and even more so after the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) pledged support for Kılıçdaroğlu.
This brought İYİ Party nationalists uncomfortably close to the HDP, a legal party which they allege is directly tied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Enter Oğan and his 2023 presidential candidacy, which offered a political venue for disbanded nationalists who felt betrayed by MHP and İYİ, but who still sought a political party free of terrorism-links that could drive the agenda in Ankara.
Oğan also appealed to nationalists that aligned with neither of Turkey’s leading political blocs.
At least this was the case until he and other members of the ATA or “Heritage” alliance also took sides with Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu. This brings us to the present day, in which many commentators and journalists are now wondering how much electoral weight an Oğan endorsement might carry. Analyst Koru stipulates not much.
“I don’t think he will have a lot of success steering votes,” he said. “Oğan isn’t someone people are loyal to on a personal level.”
Interviews with various people who voted for Oğan in the first round painted a similar picture of a diverse base with diverging presidential preferences for the second round.
What Do Oğan Voters Say?
Speaking before Oğan’s endorsement, Ali Yurttaş, a small business owner originally from Konya and now living in Bursa said he’d support Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round, as would dozens of Oğan voters in his social circle.
Yurttaş later confirmed he stood by his words, even if Oğan took a different path himself.
“What Sinan Oğan said is important for us, but he made his requests very clear,” Yurttaş told Turkey recap, adding he believed Erdoğan’s rhetoric and actions did not fit with Oğan’s ideals. “In no way is Erdoğan able to fulfill Sinan Oğan’s demands.”
Yurttaş said his main concern with the ruling alliance was the role of religion, which he called a “sharia-mindset.” Yet he was also critical of the opposition. Yurttaş mentioned he did two years of military service in Şırnak, saying the nation's dynamics were very clear to him during his service.
“Yes, the PKK is a terrorist organization, HDP is a political extension of it, but as much as the PKK is a terrorist organization … Hezbollah is forever a terrorist organization,” Yurttaş claimed, referring to the militant group – not related to the one in Lebanon – affiliated with HÜDA PAR, a party that will soon send four MPs to Turkish parliament after forming an electoral alliance with the AKP.
For others, like first time voter Büşra, it was a desire for change, together with nationalist sentiments that drew her to Oğan. As she waited for her friends next to a Kılıçdaroğlu poster with the slogan ‘Syrians will go’ on it, she voiced approval of the opposition candidate’s new tone.
“It should be like this,” she told Turkey recap. “Of course, we are living together with foreigners, with tourists, with migrants. That has been our history. What makes us uncomfortable is irregular migration. Everyone should return to their own country as much as possible, in my opinion.”
She said she would vote for Kılıçdaroğlu in the second round, but this was before Oğan’s endorsement. Yet other Oğan voters, like Ahmet, a salesperson in İstanbul, agreed with Oğan’s endorsement for Erdoğan.
“We’ve had a bleeding wound for years. It's from terrorist organizations,” he told Turkey recap, referring to the PKK. “And thousands, tens of thousands of our citizens died. I cannot vote for a candidate supported by a party that does not distance themselves from them [the PKK].”
Ahmet continued, saying he admired Yavuz Ağırlalioğlu, an İYİ MP that resigned after Kılıçdaroğlu held meetings with HDP officials. The lack of İYİ Party support for Ağırlalioğlu’s red line on the HDP was a signal for Ahmet.
“It means that the İYİ Party no longer coincides with my criteria of nationalism,” Ahmet said, adding he would vote for Erdoğan in the second round.
Along with the above mentioned hard stances on migration and terror groups, Musa Uçan, a member of Council of National Strategic Research (MİSAK), a think tank, said Oğan’s appeal also grew after he raised concerns Kılıçdaroğlu might amend the first four articles of the Turkish constitution and article 66, in which Turkish citizenship is defined.
Kılıçdaroğlu previously stated the first four articles were unchangeable, as defined by Turkish law, but nationalists’ concerns grew after Kılıçdaroğlu attempted to appeal to different religious and minority groups with more inclusive rhetoric.
As a result of meetings with HDP officials, Uçan said Kılıçdaroğlu might seek to change “the definition of Turkish citizenship [by] adding other ethnicities into the constitution.”
“It is not possible and it would mean the end of Atatürk’s Turkey,” Uçan told Turkey recap, adding Atatürk represented the peak of Turkish nationalism.
Rumble In The Ballot Box
Characterizing Oğan’s base as people frustrated with both alliances as well as nationalists of different shades, the SWP analyst Adar noted Oğan also defines himself as a nationalist who strictly adheres to the principles of Atatürk.
“His main point is really the desire to protect Turkey's territorial integrity. And there comes the rapprochement between CHP and HDP as a point of deviation from the Nation Alliance,” she told Turkey recap.
Adar continued, reflecting on how Kılıçdaroğlu’s initial inclusive and non-polarizing language did not seem to convince Erdoğan voters, and how it has been replaced by stronger anti-refugee and anti-terror slogans.
“One thing that perhaps is a little bit overlooked or underestimated is how polarized the society is,” Adar said. “I guess we were all, including myself, too optimistic that the discourse by itself would be enough to overcome the polarized situation within society.”
Heading into the second round, nationalists will have the choice between two camps which may not completely appeal to them. Regardless, both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu will continue campaigning for the nationalist vote, potentially driving away liberal or minority voters in the process.
Asked if Kılıçdaroğlu’s harder migration stances might help his prospects at the ballot box Sunday, analyst Koru said “It’s unlikely.”
“Months of the best campaign the CHP has ever waged didn’t move Erdoğan voters an inch,” Koru told Turkey recap. “Anti-immigration rhetoric for a couple of weeks – however appealing in theory – won’t either.”
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Gökalp Badak, editorial intern @gklpbdk