Friday, 18 July 2008

Is a Secular Center-Right Viable?

Published in Articles

By Halil Magnus Karaveli (vol. 1, no 11 of the Turkey Analyst)

The solution to Turkey’s regime crisis must logically be sought in the center of the political spectrum. However, the revival of the center-right force of Turkish politics represents a difficult challenge. For it to make a difference, the right must break with its tradition of playing with religion. An alternative must be formulated that is more stridently secular than what the center-right traditionally has been. But for it to be viable, such a centrist force needs simultaneously to be attractive to the conservative base of the centre-right, a challenging task.

BACKGROUND: The expectation that the constitutional court will rule on the closure of the Justice and development party, AKP, has created a fertile environment for political maneuvering. It has long been known that Abdüllatif Sener, who was one of the four original founders of the AKP (the others being Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arinc), was aspiring to shoulder a role of leadership. Last week Sener officially resigned from the AKP, declaring his intention to form a new party, Yeni Olusum Hareketi, the new grouping movement (

Abdullatif Sener

The new party is, declared Sener, going to be a party of the center, bringing together people from the center-right as well as from the center-left. Although that makes political sense, it is doubtful whether Sener will be able to perform the task of occupying the center of Turkish politics.

Abdüllatif Sener was deputy prime minister during the AKP’s first term in government. His political and ideological background is no different than that of the other leaders of the moderate Islamists. Indeed, Bülent Arinc, the former speaker of the parliament, last week challenged Sener to explain in what way his political agenda differs from that of his former colleagues in the AKP. “Your wife wears a headscarf just like mine does”, Arinc pointed out.

Sener’s background is in the Islamic Milli Görüs (National outlook) movement from which the AKP has risen. His wife and two daughters wear the Islamic headscarf. Even though no one has the right to pass any judgment on the personal choices of the members of the Sener family, they are bound to contribute to an image problem as Sener seeks to establish himself as a moderate at peace with secularism.

As deputy prime minister, Sener took care to reach out to the secular segments of society. Yet, the chances of him becoming the leader that manages to reconcile conservatives and seculars are slim. So far, his new alternative seems to be just another religiously conservative grouping. He is said to be counting on the support of sixty former AKP parliamentarians. These are the deputies who were left out of the candidate-lists by Prime Minister Erdogan prior to the election last year because they were too openly Islamist-oriented.

It is also telling that Sener chose to hold his first political rally in the city of Konya, the heartland of political Islam in Turkey. Evidently, he wanted to display that he is going to appeal to the traditional base of the Islamist movement. Whether that base will be inclined to heed the call of Sener’s new party is difficult to tell. Political commentator Ahmet Hakan in Hürriyet, who himself has a background in Islamist circles and who has otherwise taken a favorable view of Abdüllatif Sener, was however dismayed by the attempt to take advantage of an anticipated closure of the AKP; “there is yet no body to pick”, he wrote. Hakan guessed that the electorate of the AKP would be equally dismayed by such display of opportunism. In that case, the Sener initiative could turn out to be a non-starter.

Currently there appears to be no political leader in Turkey with a stature comparable to that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s political charisma will inevitably make itself felt even in the case of a closure of the AKP, and even if the prime minister is banned from party politics. In that case, Erdogan will in all likelihood return to parliament – and government – as an independent deputy after a probable early election. As long as Erdogan chooses to remain politically active, there will be little room left for those who aspire to occupy the political base of the prime minister.

Mesut Yilmaz, a former prime minister and the former leader of the center-right Motherland party (ANAP) is believed to be involved in the search for an alternative that could ally forces of the center-right and center-left. Yilmaz has, according to reports in Turkish media, been holding meetings with representatives of secular business leaders such as Rahmi Koc, president of the Koc Holding. The discussions are said to have focused on estimating the potentials of possible leaders for the new centrist force. 

Those reported to be evaluated include, among others, Abdüllatif Sener, Rifat Hisarciklioglu, president of the Turkish Union of chambers and commodity exchanges (TOBB), former finance minister Kemal Dervis and Professor Mehmet Haberal. It is known that the business community of Istanbul would like to se Kemal Dervis, who was recently invited for a gathering of Tüsiad, the association of Turkish industrialists, return to politics.

IMPLICATIONS: What appeal can such an alternative be expected to have? The outlook of the electorate evidently suggests that the center is politically the right place to be in. According to a survey taken by Istanbul’s Bosphorus University in conjunction with the Open Society Institute in 2007, a majority of Turkish voters is clustered in the center, with a clear tilt to the center-right. Thus, 35 percent declare themselves to be closest to the right and 24 percent are at a center-position which combines the values of the right and those of the left. Close to 60 percent are consequently positioned at the center or center-right, with only 15 percent taking up a position to the left of the spectrum.

The proportion between right and left reflects Turkish political realities. The ruling force in Turkey has traditionally been the center-right. Except for a brief period in the 1970s, the left has always trailed the combined right. The 1977 election remains the exception to the general rule of Turkish politics: the social democratic Republican People’s Party won with 42 percent of the votes, an all-time high never again to be repeated. While there are obviously several factors which combine to explain the electoral weakness of the left and the strength of the right, one stand out: the religious factor. The social democratic victory in 1977 was no coincidence; for once, the left had copied the right and explicitly courted religion. During the 1970’s social democratic leader Bülent Ecevit had distanced himself from the Kemalist heritage, stating that Kemal Atatürk’s revolution had created a cultural alienation. “What good did it do us that we changed the way we dress?”, Ecevit rhetorically asked.

The center-right has since the founding of the republic associated itself with religious conservatism. The tone was set already in 1924, by the Progressive Republican party, the precursor to a long line of center-right parties with changing names but with a consistent stance which has until recently successfully combined economic  liberalism with religious conservatism – the Progressive Republican party notably sought to capitalize on the opposition to the abolition of the caliphate. Thus, while it has been argued that the moderate Islamist AKP represents something new in Turkish politics, being a party akin to European Christian democrats, that definition in fact applies to the whole of the Turkish center-right tradition.

What is new about the AKP is rather the fact that the ideological gap that has, at least to a certain extent, existed between the leadership of the center-right parties and a large portion of the electoral base of the right has been bridged. The center-right politicians, though apt at using the religious card, have themselves generally been secular and westernized. Former president and former prime minister Süleyman Demirel, who recently declared to the Turkey Analyst that he had had to make use of religion in order to counter Islamic fundamentalists, epitomizes the stance and dilemma of the center-right. The experience of Turkish liberalism and secular conservatism illustrates an innate difficulty to control religious conservatism. Secular liberals have invariably ended up being overtaken by the force they had harnessed. The example of Fethi Okyar, the leader of the Free Party, Turkey’s second center-right attempt, is a telling case in point: In 1930, Okyar challenged the rule of the Republican people’s party. 

Although Okyar himself was a secular liberal (and a close friend to Kemal Atatürk), he could not resist the temptation to play the religious card, calling for the reinstatement of sharia, the Islamic law; it focalized popular religious sentiments to such a degree to the Free Party that the party ended up becoming a threat to the survival of the secular regime, something which Okyar had not intended. He subsequently dissolved his party. There is indeed a line running from Fethi Okyar, the regretful liberal, to a repentant Süleyman Demirel: after having spent much of his political life courting religious feelings, Demirel today agitates for secularism, and believes that he would be able to reach out to seculars as well as conservatives.

CONCLUSIONS: As religious conservatism has come to impregnate Turkish society, the task of trying to shore up secularism is bound to be demanding. Radical departures from past policies will have to be contemplated. The challenge facing those who aspire to recreate the center-right will be to induce the religiously conservative part of the electorate, the bedrock of the right, to return to a center alternative that no longer can afford to play with religion - if anything has been learnt from past experiences.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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