In a rough week for the world, Turkey's presidential election offers lessons about national extremism's much more complicated global rise.
It’s been another grim week for world watchers. In the past seven days: Thirty-three Palestinians, including six children and three Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants (PIJs), were killed amid air strikes, as the Iron Dome faced off against over 970 PIJ rockets, accidentally killing an Israeli and injuring five others in the process. Sudan’s civil war reached the all-too-familiar stage of widespread reports of women raped by combatants. And Russia’s renewed attacks on Ukraine’s capital continue at high intensity, if somewhat tempered by the presence of newer Western systems in defence.
But it’s in countries like Turkey, which did not decisively select its next president on May 14 and is now heading into a May 28 runoff (despite sites like Twitter aiding in government censorship of local political dissent), where we face an added challenge. In a world of many difficult, oppressive, and violent systems, it is easy to be heartened by any sign of a shift to something better. But in Turkey as in the West, broader and more intractable movements remain an impediment to the growth of fuller democracy. No one election, speech, or other grand political act can sufficiently heal the damage done by extremists in recent years.
However, what’s happening in Turkey can, at the very least, illustrate some of the missteps easily made along the path to more sustainable democratic reform.
A juxtaposition of nationalisms
While Turkey, a NATO country, was busy holding its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at bay with the rising challenge of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Western world was grappling openly with rising nationalism. And yet, there are some uncanny overlaps in the structures giving rise to the role of nationalist extremism in US, UK, and Turkish affairs.
In the US this past weekend, President Joe Biden named “white supremacy” as the greatest domestic threat to the US, in keeping with the Department of Defense’s abiding struggle to combat related radicalization in the military. Biden’s speech came only days after Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville complained of the attempt “to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists”, claiming that leftist ideas were impacting military readiness while himself holding up military nominations critical to the same. And in the UK? The first National Conservatism Conference launched, in a three-day event advocating a future for conservative thought more expressly founded on nationalist enterprise.
Like the US, modern Turkey was founded on republicanism, one of six Kemalist policies established by the first president, Mustafa Kemal, and informing its 1937 constitution. Another of those policies was secularism, based on the view that “sacred religious feelings” should be kept at a remove from state affairs. In practice, this involved dissolving the caliphate, bringing women the vote and right to serve in public office, and switching to language, calendrical, and family law systems that did not unduly prioritize faith over a common national ethos. It also involved a ban on religious garb that would haunt future politicians, creating sites of religious/secular tension easily leveraged in future elections.
Erdoğan, a 21st century president, came to power at a time when Turkish secularism, effected in part through the oppression of other people’s apparel, had created significantly powerful military and government opponents who could critique him not on the basis of his many failings as a democratic leader, but for any attempt to lift, say, headscarf bans for religious constituents. The battle for democracy in this Eastern European nation has therefore often been fought on religious lines: sites of artificial conflict crafted expressly by a too-rigid limitation on individual expression first established by Kemal.
In 2007, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) advanced state reforms inviting “sensitivity over secularism” to guide policy on religious apparel and inclusion in public life and institutions. This heralded a recent scramble, across the political spectrum, to vie for the religious vote. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) was traditionally a staunch defender of Kemalist secularism, but in recent years formed a coalition with the Islamist Felicity Party and other minority ethno-religious groups. Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP candidacy came to fruition with an express call for national healing and unity that found backing among pro-Kurdish parties seeking more accountability for past state violence.
This recent split in the religious vote has not only destabilized Erdoğan’s reliable pool of supporters, but also heightened the role of the expressly nationalist vote in general.
At present, around 3.7 million Syrian refugees eke out a difficult existence in Turkey, as recently illustrated in the fallout of a devastating earthquake in early February. This has not been an easy situation, and amid economic downturn for the world, xenophobic pressures have given way to rising support for parties once viewed as stark extremes on the political spectrum. One of these, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), began life with an accompanying paramilitary association, the Grey Wolves, regarded as a terrorist organization by Kazakhstan and France and ignored by the Turkish government. In more recent years, the MHP was against a peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but established itself as Erdoğan’s firm ally after that process broke down and the president survived a coup attempt in 2016.
Today, then, although both major parties (the AKP and the CHP) still struggle to keep their share of religious votes, and Kurdish votes, among other key interest groups (like women, a mixed voting block with significant concerns about both proposed leaders), nationalist extremism has quietly gained greater relevance in a spectrum that otherwise finds both parties nearing parity in their understanding that the country’s founding secularist bans on fuller freedoms of expression were always going to create political strife.
Lessons for the US
There are many key drivers for the rise of extremist nationalisms. Although performative signalling for religious movements, as seen in Christian nationalist propaganda across the US in recent government sessions, plays a critical role in their development, it is not the sole fount of related extremist exercise. Nationalist radicalism informed by racialized anxieties given xenophobic targets need not make any pit stop at the local church to pose a considerable threat to the development and maintenance of robust democracies.
On May 28, it is quite likely that Erdoğan, who gained 49.4 percent of the vote on May 14, will retake the presidency, and all of Kılıçdaroğlu’s complicated and ambitious promises of a less authoritarian democracy and more inclusive Turkish society will be postponed anew. Whatever the outcome, though, beneath the surface of this latest democratic exercise already lie clear signs of nationalist extremism’s greater role in the government ahead.
In the West, too, the face of democracy’s greatest challenger has made itself apparent.
Let us not forget that religious extremism is but one path by which authoritarianism rises.