This reality notwithstanding, only the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) stands a chance of becoming Turkey's center party in the current elections.
Why can't political parties align in Turkey's center? Do religious, ethnic and factional cleavages serve as roadblocks to parties? What do political parties intend to accomplish by bringing in politicians from different parts of the political spectrum before every election? Can political instability be attributed to the lack of a proper center party in Turkey (which has seen three center-right parties since the inception of the multiparty regime)? It seems that all these questions have their answers as well.
While every political party defines itself as a center party as we approach July 22, no single party can receive electoral support from all groups in Turkey, public opinion polls show. The Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), parties that have adopted nationalist or neo-nationalist and pro-statist discourses, have failed to find support in the East and Southeast, as evidenced in the 2002 elections. The CHP could secure only four deputies from this region at that time. In the current elections it is not expected to even reach this number. The race in this region is between the ruling AK Party and the independent candidates supported by the Democratic Society Party (DTP). Pursuing policies marked by ethnic Kurdish nationalism, it is unlikely that the DTP will receive electoral support in provinces outside the East and Southeast. Currently the AK Party is supported by all groups in society, with the exception of some Alevi voters. In other words, it is the only party that can garner the support of voters from various economic, social and cultural groups. This shows that the AK Party is the only party that can overcome the religious, ethnic, geographical and factional cleavages in Turkey.
Professor Naci Bostancı explains that while the CHP and the MHP can also be considered center parties, the AK Party deserves the title the most. "Can a party that cannot win electoral support in every region in Turkey really be called a center party? In this respect, I consider the AK Party, the CHP, the MHP and the Democrat Party (DP) center parties. In the past the Democratic Left Party (DSP) could be considered a center party from the left of the political spectrum.
But now the CHP is seen as more of an ideological party than the DSP. Although it is a narrow party, it has received 20 percent of the vote, and this has made it a center party. And the MHP, despite being an ideological party to a certain extent, is trying to get this designation. Conceptually the AK Party is the greatest center party in Turkey. It can embrace all groups in Turkey with its policies and actions," he says.
DP the first center party
The DP, which was founded by the late Adnan Menderes and which put an end to the single-party regime of the CHP in the 1950 elections, became the first center party by securing the support of all ethnic groups in a Turkey to which the concepts of right and left had not yet been introduced. Kurds and Alevis gave their support to the DP and even an Armenian and a Greek were elected as DP deputies to represent minorities in İstanbul. In the 1950 elections a party's status as pro-statist or nationalist was decisive. The Turkish people supported the DP against a CHP known to have pro-statist practices despite its name referring to people.
After the military coup of May 27, 1960 overthrew the DP government, the Sunnis inside the party became dominant and the Alevis stopped supporting it. This was the beginning of a process in which Alevis would never again collectively support any rightist party. Although a significant number of Alevis backed the Justice Party (AP) in 1965, this never amounted to all-out support from the group. Yet the AP was almost fully supported by Kurds and other groups.
Role of left-right divide during the Cold War
Starting in 1968, the divide between left and right grew even further with the influence of the Cold War era, giving Kurds and Alevis the opportunity to express themselves in left parties that they found to be more liberal. As the people were being divided into right and left, the separatist Kurdish movement, which would turn into a headache for Turkey after the 1980s, found itself a place among the left. Differences of opinion between religious communities also emerged in this period. While some religious orders supported the AP, others leaned toward the National Salvation Party (MSP) led by Necmettin Erbakan. Bülent Ecevit, who took helm of the CHP in 1973, managed to win the votes of the entire Alevi community and a significant majority of the Turkish votes, but failed to reach out to the religious segment of society. Over time the CHP became a stage for inner struggles among Alevi, communist and Kurdish groups.
This is the major reason why left parties have never been supported by the masses, according to Bilkent University's Associate Professor Ali Tekin. "The left could never manage to form a mass party because the left cannot get down to the basic common values of society. When you focus on common values that most agree on, you scare off some segments of society. The Alevis fear the AK Party while the religious fear the CHP. The Kurds fear both the CHP and the MHP. All parties have a confidence problem when it comes to some part of society because politics in Turkey is not based on secular issues. Since most political discourse is established along the lines of religion, nationality, ethnic identities or religious denominations, some segments of society naturally fear certain parties. All parties exploit religious issues. Right parties address voters as "brothers in religion," left parties form their discourse on being anti-religion -- all making religion a central political issue. They do this using codes. Even the election theme songs of some parties are filled with inconspicuous religious codes. The DP, then the AP in 1965 and Turgut Özal after 1980 all reached the common denominators of the society. However Özal, who said he brought four separate political tendencies together under one roof, was the best in doing that. There have been other parties and leaders who got close to that, but none of them really reached it," explains Tekin.
After the military takeover of Sept. 12, 1980, all political parties were closed. The Nationalist Democracy Party (MDP) was established in the aftermath of the coup with the support of coup leaders, and former Gen. Turgut Sunalp was its chairman. Turgut Özal founded the Motherland Party (ANAP, now ANAVATAN) and the MDP, which had the army's backing, suffered an embarrassing defeat when Özal's ANAP won a majority that would enable the party to form a single government.
The Sept. 12 coup was proof that political parties established by the state, or by the support of state powers, are doomed to fail.
The former head of the True Path Party's (DYP) parliamentary group also agrees that pro-state vs. pro-people arguments make the difference. Turhan Güven believes that the AK Party has a chance to stress its side for the nation, but is not using that chance effectively.
"Turkey has seen three mass political parties -- the DP, the AP and Özal's ANAP. The point common to all these parties was that they were not pro-state, but were on the side of the people. They had embraced all the factions of the nation. Whenever the parties cut off ties with the nation and move to the side of the state, they lose their character of being a mass party. Turkey never had center-left parties appealing to the majority. The center and the masses in general are always represented by rightist parties. Turkey is left to party chairmen who deliver speeches reading from texts in their hands because they don't say what's inside their mind. The Turkish people don't see these leaders as one among them; this is why they can't embrace all the populace. This is why parties are racing to slide into the center. In 2002 the AK Party had a chance to become a central party, but it looks like it has lost that chance in this election," he says.
Indeed, although the AK Party was close to becoming a center party in the 2002 elections, it failed to win the Alevi vote. Its leaders close to political Islam with a background in the National View movement were able to take votes from the MHP. Although it has backing from almost all religious communities in the country, the polarization in society intensified with April protests and the perception of secularists that AK Party is a threat.
However, as polls suggest, no party other than the AK Party seems to appeal to so many voters from different geographic areas of Turkey. For many Kurdish nationalists the CHP is as dangerous as the MHP, despite it having harbored them in the past. Even with names such as Erturğrul Günay the AK Party can only get partial votes from secular leftists, who lean toward CHP leader Deniz Baykal. Ethnic, religious and denominational identities are likely to decide the voting patterns this year, while economic, social and cultural issues are more in the background. However the AK Party has the backing of all segments of society among voters who vote mainly on the basis of economic, social and cultural issues.
The DP cannot appeal to Kurdish voters, either, despite its leader Mehmet Ağar's statement a few months ago suggesting Kurdish demands should be integrated into Turkey's political system. Apparently people couldn't get past Ağar's dubious past as a police chief who led a major operation against Kurdish separatism. In the East and the Southeast the race is mainly between the AK Party and the DTP. The situation is similar to that of Özal in 1983. Tomorrow's election will see a struggle between the statist parties and those for the people -- a situation apparently sparked by the crisis over electing the president in May.
Çiçek: AK Party's DNA compatible with that of society
Former Minister of Justice Cemil Çiçek explains the reason why the AK Party is able to get more votes from a larger segment of society:
"Sociologically speaking, the AK Party is able to get votes from all segments and regions of Turkey. If a party is able to do this, it means it has managed to establish a relation with them based on love. The DNA of the AK Party and that of society are compatible with each other. In the past, the Democrat Party (DP), and the Justice Party (AP), and the Motherland Party (ANAP, now ANAVATAN) achieved this. The leftist parties have never achieved this, as they can never bring themselves to engage in self-criticism in relation to why they lose. They only appear to have done that, but continue fighting internally. And when they get stuck, they start leaning on the state, thereby tearing politics away from people."
Professor Turan: No mass party in Turkey
Professor İlter Turan, from Bilgi University's department of international relations and political science, stated that the term "mass party" described those parties open to everyone and, furthermore, that appeal to people from all segments of society, where the members play an active role in the nomination of candidates and the determination of party policy. "Therefore, there are no mass parties in Turkey in this sense," he said.
Turan explained the reason for this. "All of our parties are parties which don't have enough members in accordance with the size of society and the country's population. All parties are dominated by the central organization. And, particularly when it comes to determining candidates, the leader and the central organization far outstrip other determining agents. The DSP [Democratic Left Party] was the personal party of Bülent Ecevit and his wife. The CHP is not a mass party. It's more of a doctrine party. The reason the CHP cannot get votes from the eastern cities is that its political stance and its definitions of what the nation is don't appeal to the people of the region. The amount of votes a party gets doesn't determine whether it is a mass party or not. Mass parties are those that want to increase the number of those who believe in the cause rather than increasing the number of voters. In this context, the CHP and MHP are doctrine parties. The AK Party doesn't give the impression of a doctrine party in terms of its statements. Looking at its election campaign and political stance based on its deeds, we cannot say that it is a doctrine party."
Güncelleme Tarihi: 22 Temmuz 2007, 11:21