A man standing near waving Turkish flags spends time at the seaside in the Bostanlı district, Izmir, western Turkey, March 18, 2022. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Debates on AK Party, center-right and identity politics

Turkey is at a time and place where neither the People’s Alliance nor the opposition can view the 2023 elections as a done deal

Turkey’s new election law has created an atmosphere that will facilitate fresh debates on party identity, the positioning of electoral alliances and leader profiles. Since the number of each party’s parliamentary seats depends exclusively on its level of popular support, the opposition is now required to go over its calculations.

In this sense, the lack of popular interest in the March 27 meeting of six opposition parties was not solely due to the crisis in Ukraine. The question of what kind of alliance is needed is more critical today than it was earlier. Indeed, the possibility that the fringe parties may end up having to contest the election as part of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the Good Party’s (IP) lists (or the list of a single fringe party) must be taken into consideration with an eye on voter preferences. It remains unclear how much of an impact those monthly roundtable meetings among opposition leaders will have on the electorate. While the opposition’s representatives are preoccupied contemplating various scenarios and engineering plans for the 2023 election, political commentators are generating many arguments regarding the center-right, the possibility of a third electoral alliance and the state of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) base.

It goes without saying that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s diplomatic activity during the Ukraine crisis has created a positive atmosphere for the People’s Alliance. The confrontation between Russia, a great power, and the West over the former’s occupation of Ukraine certainly entails significant circumstances. The need for strong leadership has already been made clear by questions over the supply of energy, price hikes, inflation, food shortages, security-related uncertainty, geopolitical competition, defense spending, sanctions (which could impact the global economic order) and ongoing attempts to use national currencies in international transactions. This context undoubtedly boosts Erdoğan’s popular support.

The 2023 election is 14 months away and the outcome of that race will be determined by a combination of foreign policy, the economy and domestic politics. We are at a time and place where neither the People’s Alliance nor the opposition can view the election as a done deal. The campaign will be both dynamic and full of verbal strife.

Between and within alliances

All political parties will be working hard to expand their respective base. That competition will take place not just between the electoral alliances but also within them. The CHP aims to attract right-leaning voters by talking about “making amends.” The IP, in turn, attempts to liberate itself from the limitations of its nationalist platform in an attempt to turn itself into the main center-right party. Meanwhile, the fringe parties – the Felicity Party (SP), the Future Party (GP) and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) – are looking for ways to legitimize their potential decision to contest the election as part of the CHP or the IP, whilst winning over AK Party voters.

It is within that context that a fresh debate has started on center-right politics in an attempt to suggest that the AK Party placed too much emphasis on ideology over the last decade and thus ceased to be a center-right party. Those folks, who engage in that debate, claim that the ruling party, no longer a mass party, engages in identity politics (over the conservative lifestyle) and has limited itself to a religious-conservative base with a strong sense of “the other.” That argument is clearly intended to facilitate the flow of voters to the IP and fringe parties.

Changes over time

Over the course of two decades, successive AK Party governments oversaw a multidimensional transformation of Turkish politics. The traditional left-right divide has thus become immaterial. The AK Party, which has Islamic considerations, redefined conservatism. As Turkey’s version of secularism became more democratic, certain issues – like the headscarf, the status of Hagia Sophia and religious instruction – became permanent fixtures of centrist politics. The CHP chairperson’s “recognition” of Muslim-conservative accomplishments represents a mandatory acknowledgment of normalization. Of course, it is necessary to keep in mind the “deep secularist anger” of that social group, which they manage to conceal sometimes and reveal on other occasions.

It would be wrong to reduce the AK Party’s struggle against domestic and foreign guardianship – and the costs of its long tenure in power – to “prioritizing ideology.” Politicians having the power to determine Turkey’s future represents an important opportunity for democratic consolidation. Furthermore, while the AK Party has certainly forged a large base for itself, those commentators, who believe in “identity politics” to keep that group together, are dead wrong. Since the electorate does not believe that the opposition could solve Turkey’s pressing problems (even after 20 years), those commentators need something better than the discourse of “identity politics” to account for it all.

[Daily Sabah, April 4, 2022]

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