From the Transformation of Turkey’s Political Fault Lines to the Construction of a New Political Center
The Transformation of Turkey’s Political Fault Lines
During the republican period, Turkey’s two most enduring fault lines have been about ethnic — Kurdishness versus Turkishness — and religious — Islamism versus official laicisim — identities. These two identity clashes were the major sources of tension in the political sphere. Yet the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKParty), whose founding cadres come from a political Islamic background, have now, uninterrupted, ruled the country since 2002. During this time, the state has gradually ceased encroaching on the rights and liberties of the Islamic sections of society, which has in return lessened their grievances vis-à-vis the state. Likewise, Turkey has travelled a long way in recognition of the cultural and political rights of the Kurds during the same time period. The state has gradually shifted the Kurdish issue to being more of a political than a security concern. The Kurdish Movement has increasingly become a key player on Turkey’s political scene, the process of which has taken some pressure off these groups.
Over the same time period, but especially in recent years, the long-suppressed Alevi religious minority has gained increased political salience and significance. This trend can easily be discerned from a look at political parties’ candidate lists and election manifestos. The Republican People Party (CHP) and People’s Democratic Party’s (HDP) candidate lists feature a large number of Alevi individuals. Almost all parties, in one way or another, have given space to Alevis’ demands in their election manifestos. Previously, political parties did not feel comfortable openly embracing the Alevi community’s demands and identity, fearing a political backlash from the conservative Islamic majority. But as the state normalized its approach toward other contentious groups, the Alevis acquired enhanced social and political acceptance. This transformation is closely linked to the political transformation of the Islamist and Kurdish identities. The increasing assertiveness and acceptance of these groups has encouraged those of other disadvantaged identities to be more forthcoming in their demands in the public and political spheres. This transformation is also a harbinger of what to expect in the post-election period. The political manifestation of the Alevi identity is set to gain steam going forward, and political parties will increasingly need to respond to that community’s demands. If handled well, this process will prove healthy for Turkey’s democracy and politics as it will deactivate one of Turkey’s most active contemporary fault lines.
Kurds and Islamists’ Politics of Expansionism and its Possible Implications
The Islamists and Kurds are proving to be the most dynamic socio-political forces shaping contemporary Turkey, but increasingly in opposition to each other. In this election, the rival that the governing AKParty is taking most seriously is the pro-Kurdish HDP. No other party’s election result will have as much impact on the AKParty’s post-election strategies as the HDP’s. Both factions, as they have matured, have set forth expansionist visions for their socio-political reach. The governing AKParty has already experienced more than a decade of such expansionism. Despite the fact that its core founding group was largely made up of ex-political Islamists, it swiftly incorporated a large chunk of the center right, and even a fraction of the center left, as well as liberals and Kurds into its constituency. The HDP seems to be looking to pursue a similarly expansionist political vision. It wants to go beyond its core Kurdish cadres and social constituency by incorporating Alevis, Turkish liberals and leftists, and conservative/pious Kurds, a portion of whom for one reason or another has grown disillusioned with the AKParty. These HDP policies illustrate that the party, at least for the time being, has resolved its dilemma of whether to pursue an enlargement or a deepening strategy.
An enlargement strategy would go beyond targeting the Kurds and break into more broad Turkish constituencies. In other words, an enlargement strategy means that the HDP will attempt to fill the vacuum on the left of the political spectrum, evolving from being a Kurdish party to being a left-wing party in Turkey. A deepening strategy, on the other hand, would mean that the HDP would cease its efforts to reach out to the Turkish left and liberals, instead solely focusing on enhancing and deepening its reach among the Kurds. This strategy would require the HDP to put extra emphasis on and effort into reaching out to conservative/pious Kurds, adopting a more Islam-friendly approach.
In this election, the HDP has adopted an enlargement strategy or politics of expansionism. While doing so, it is pursuing a separate political campaign in the Kurdish part of Turkey that emphasizes Kurdish national aspirations and adopts religion-friendly language. The HDP’s strategy sets it on a collision course with the AKParty, as they are both trying to appeal to the same constituency of pious Kurds. But the HDP’s dual strategy is not sustainable in the medium and long term. It will soon face tensions between its nationwide strategy of enlargement and its separate and local agenda toward the Kurds. It will have to sharpen its left-wing credentials, which in return is likely to decrease its appeal to conservative Kurds. And the more the HDP goes down the left-wing path, the more it will appeal to the CHP’s traditional political base: Alevis, the Turkish left and liberals. Therefore, in the medium term, the HDP’s rise might cost the CHP more than it does the AKParty.
In addition, much is heard about the need to reform Turkey’s political system from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or through the governing AKParty’s demands for a change from a parliamentary to a presidential system. But the AKParty is not the only party demanding comprehensive reform and a restructuring of Turkey’s political system. In fact, the Kurdish political movement has advocated the reform of Turkey’s political system for a long time, raising the ire of Turkey’s previous military establishment as well as the CHP and Nationalist Action Party (MHP). In this respect, of the four political parties represented in the parliament — the AKParty, HDP, CHP, and MHP — the AKParty seems to be the most receptive to the HDP’s demands for the restructuring of Turkey’s political system through decentralization, the devolution of power from the center to the periphery, and the state’s accommodation of different cultures and languages in public administration. All in all, the pre-election process has demonstrated that the HDP’s ideological/political repositioning motivates it to pursue the role of a formidable opposition to the AKParty, whereas its demands for the structural and systemic reform of Turkey’s political system and state structure necessitates it to work with the governing party, as there seems to be no better candidate for the HDP to work with in the short and medium term. This incompatibility between the HDP’s political demands and its political positioning force it to walk a fine line between them.
The Formation of a New Political Center?
The pre-election process has also shown that the seeds of the formation of a new political center are being sown. The relative decrease in the significance of identity politics, the increasing salience of the economy in the political programs of all parties, and a growing recognition, especially by the opposition, that Turkey’s previous status quo formed around and mostly maintained by the civil-military bureaucratic alliance has been irreversibly shattered all pave the ground for a new style of politics that is gravitating toward the center.
The pre-election process has once again showed that the political and social acceptance of Kurdish and Islamist groups have significantly increased over the last decade. As a corollary, these identities are losing their political significance in relative terms. Cognizant of this change, their political representatives, the HDP and AKParty, are decreasing the relative dominance of these identities on their political platforms, as reflected through the candidate profiles and languages of these parties. The HDP is putting less emphasis on its Kurdish credentials and more emphasis on its left-wing credentials. The Kurdish issue constitutes only a fraction of the HDP’s pre-election rallies agenda. Similarly, the number of centrist (mostly from the center right) candidates has risen on the AKParty’s candidate lists.
Likewise, Turkey’s main opposition CHP has historically regarded itself as the political guardian of Turkey’s state-ordained strict identity, the main tenets of which were laicism, Western orientation, and “Turkishness.” The CHP’s understanding of its primary role has led the majority of Turkey’s population to regard the party through identity and class lenses, instead of seeing it for what it claims to be: a center left or social democratic party. It has been perceived particularly as the carrier of a top-down modernist secularism, and hence the representative of the state’s official ideology. Such a reading has driven a wedge between the CHP and the majority of Turkish society, and confined the party mostly to the coastal part of Turkey, the section of society that is the most at ease with the Turkish state’s founding modernist ideology. Yet, the CHP seems to recognize the limits of its narrow political platform. Its leadership, especially its chairman, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has repeatedly claimed that the CHP will no longer problematize religious themes and the people’s religious preferences. He has claimed that previous restrictions on, for instance, the headscarf in educational and public institutions have no place in Turkey’s future. Moreover, a significant number of the CHP’s more radical figures did not make it onto the party’s candidate lists, so it has slashed some of its ideological excesses.
As a corollary to the decreasing salience of identity-focused themes, the opposition parties have recognized the value of economic themes in this election. In almost all previous elections since 2002, the opposition has bet on identity-focused themes and tried to convince voters of the danger that the AKParty was purportedly posing to the Turkish establishment’s self-conceived notion of identity, to no avail. In all these consecutive general elections, the AKParty has only increased its share of votes at the expense of the opposition. The opposition has come to grasp the importance of bread and butter issues in convincing voters.
Lastly, the formation of a new political center is contingent upon the recognition by all parties that the previous status quo has been shattered irreversibly. Even though it is hard to gauge, the political parlance and election manifestos of all major parties suggest that they have arrived at such a conclusion. Irrespective of the outcome of the upcoming elections, if the parties stick to this apparent conviction, this will facilitate shift to a new political center.