BACKGROUND: Opinion polls show that there is a very real possibility that the next general election may return one or two of the nationalist opposition parties – the Republican people’s party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP) – to power. The polls put the CHP’s support at around 25 percent, with the MHP receiving a few points less. The ruling Justice and development party (AKP) receives around 35 percent, a significantly lower support than the 47 percent the party received in the general elections of 2007. The surge in the support for the nationalist opposition parties suggests that the Turkish electorate is not yet ready to abandon old habits. Nationalism seems to be re-imposing itself as an electoral necessity: tellingly, the support for the AKP fell sharply (to under 30 percent in some polls) after the government launched its opening to the Kurds, to recover after the opening for all intents and purposes was abandoned with the clampdown on Kurdish nationalist politicians in late December and January.
The recent passing of the Armenian Genocide resolutions in the U.S. House foreign relations committee and the subsequent decision to the same effect of the Swedish Parliament has served as an occasion to reassert Turkish nationalism. Turkey reacted by calling back its ambassadors from both countries, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did not mince their words when condemning the resolutions.
Erdoğan announced that there are about 170,000 Armenians in Turkey and claimed that around 100,000 of them are illegal workers from the Republic of Armenia, whom he went on to threaten with expulsion. The statement was harshly criticized by liberals in Turkey. However, Erdoğan’s threat was met with approval by the MHP and in fact echoed earlier statements in the same vein by representatives of the CHP; its foreign policy spokesmen, Onur Öymen and Şükrü Elekdağ, had preceded Erdoğan by calling for solid measures against the Armenians.
The threat to expel Armenians working in Turkey in retaliation to Western genocide resolutions serves as a reminder of the strength of Turkish nationalism. Although the AKP has sought to downplay nationalism – as was initially manifested in its since abandoned openings to Armenia and to the Kurdish minority – the party is nevertheless quick to adopt the nationalist rhetoric of the opposition when the circumstances seem to require that. Liberal Turkish commentators deplore that the AKP has shelved the Armenian opening, a move which they claim testifies to the fact that the nationalist parties have been accorded a veto right over foreign policy. Indeed, Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s EU negotiator, recently impressed that the AKP government can go only so far in offering new concessions on Cyprus, since it has to take the views of the opposition into account, as “Turkey is not a sultanate or emirate”.
The threat against the Armenians in Turkey was welcomed by none less than Canan Arıtman, one of the most fiercely nationalist deputies of the opposition CHP, who claimed ownership for the idea, stating that the proposal had first been made by her. However, another CHP deputy, Şükrü Elekdağ, Turkey’s former ambassador to Washington, had already in 2006 proposed that the “70,000 Armenians who are working illegally in Turkey should be repatriated”. The AKP can thus count on being seconded by the nationalist opposition parties when it takes a nationalist stand against what is perceived as expressions of Western hostility to Turkey.
Incidents like the passing of the genocide resolutions bring to fore a Turkish nationalism that is also innately anti-western. That stance is a strong undercurrent in Turkish politics, and it in fact unites the AKP and the two unabashedly nationalist opposition parties of CHP and MHP, the former officially center-left and the latter explicitly right-wing.
IMPLICATIONS: On a personal level, both parties’ foreign policy is shaped by three former ambassadors, Şükrü Elekdağ and Onur Öymen in theCHP and Deniz Bölükbaşı in MHP. Their respective diplomatic careers have been dominated by issues – Cyprus, the Armenian problem, and the PKK – that for years have brought Turkey and its Western partners into conflict. Turkish nationalists tend to suspect Turkey’s Western allies of harboring designs against Turkey’s territorial integrity. Indeed, it is principally against this emotional backdrop that the secularist nationalists assail the foreign policies of the AKP.
In a recently published book, Onur Öymen of the CHP restates the nationalist case against the AKP: “the AKP government relies on foreign support for its legitimacy. It assumes that it can escape closure only by soliciting support from abroad. And of course, since foreign powers would not be doing this without being offered something in return, they demand concessions and the government gives the impression that it is prepared to be forthcoming, even if it is not able to go all the way. Turkey (ruled by the AKP) offers the specter of a country ready to make concessions on Cyprus, meeting the demands of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, and offering to be accommodating on Middle Eastern issues and the Armenian question.”
The catalogue of Öymen’s grievances offers something of a blueprint for what would be the foreign policy of a Turkey ruled by the nationalist parties, and it also highlights the secularist-nationalist view of the Western countries – the foreign powers that Öymen has in mind are obviously none other than the EU countries and the United States.
During the rule of the AKP, Turkey has privileged its relations with Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries, while relations with the West have been more or less neglected. The EU membership process has stalled, and the development of Turkish-American relations – although in a significantly better shape today than what was the case during the period that followed upon the invasion of Iraq – is impeded by the fact that both sides do not see eye-to-eye on the matter of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The AKP has raised doubts in Western quarters about Turkey’s ideological appurtenance by its vocal support for Hamas, Sudan and Iran. The Middle Eastern tilt of Turkish foreign policy under the AKP has generally lent credibility to the assertion that Turkey is “drifting” eastwards. Yet as Öymen’s statements make clear, the nationalist opposition is hardly advocating any reorientation toward the West. The foreign policy spokesman of the CHP impresses that it is in Turkey’s interest to develop equally strong ties with a wide range of countries, from Russia and China to the United States; the U.S. is thus not singled out as an ally.
A Turkey ruled by the CHP would be more circumspect in its dealings with Muslim countries: Öymen is critical of the AKP’s support for Hamas and he deplores the fact that Turkey, as a result, has lost leverage in the Middle East and is no longer accepted as a mediator. And the Turkic nationalist MHP would rather see that Turkey strengthens its ties with the wider Turkic region of Central Asia – with which the AKP has downgraded relations in favor of the Muslim Middle East where religious fervor is stronger. Yet although it is reasonable to expect that religion would have less impact on the foreign policy of a nationalist-ruled Turkey, the Iranian issue seems poised to remain as contentious as it is today. Indeed, the nationalist opposition does not seem to have any strong objections to the Iranian policies of the AKP government. The “Middle Eastern issues” that the CHP’s Öymen alludes to, and on which he claims foreign powers are demanding concessions from Turkey, can be presumed to include Iran. Historically, Turkey and Iran have been geopolitical rivals; however, more recent history – notably the consequences of the U.S.-occupation of Iraq – has made the Turks ill-disposed toward taking a favorable view of another western incursion into the region.
CONCLUSIONS: In a more fundamental sense, the secularist-nationalists of Turkey are ideologically inclined to defy the West. Kemalist ideology has little appreciation for liberal Western notions of societal pluralism. Absent the conditions of the Cold war, during which the urgency to stand shoulder to shoulder against the common Soviet enemy drew Turkey and the West together, there is very little that unites the old, Kemalist custodians of Turkish state power and the U.S. and Europe.
Reverting to pure and simple nationalism during the last decade, the secularist-nationalist tradition has shed any pretenses of being inspired by the West – or more precisely by the liberalism that defines the West. That in turn has a particularly adverse effect on internal Turkish dynamics, as the nationalism of the secularists serves to reinforce the nationalism of the Islamic conservatives. Although a departure from age-old non-libertarian traditions is envisaged by more liberal-minded representatives of the AKP, there seems to be little chance that liberalism can flourish with the secularist opposition fanning nationalism. And a nationalist foreign policy, haunted by the notion of supposedly colluding external enemies, will inevitably hamper the cautious attempt to rid Turkey of the habit of conceiving of expressions of pluralism as the “enemy within”.
Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. M.K. Kaya is a contributing editor to the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".