Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Missing Dimension: MHP and the Right-Left Stalemate

PHOTO from Today's Zaman

I have been remiss to comment much about the Turkey's far right, but the recent violence at Akdeniz University in Antalya seems an excellent way to introduce the topic. The incidents speak to a conflict between Turkey's right and left, a dimension in Turkish politics that has largely been overshadowed in recent years by a conflict between secularists and AKP. Papers early in the week linked the unusual bout of violence to that characteristic of the late 1970s between rightist and leftist student groups.

So, what happened at Akdeniz University? This is not an easy question to answer, but last weekend, a series of fights occurred between leftist and rightist student groups. Although it was reported by the university's rector that the violence was provoked by a personal conflict between two students, the conflict took political tones when it spread to political groups to which the students belonged. The groups fought one another with fists, stones, and knives in two separate incidents and Antalya police had to be called in to break up the fighting. The members of the rightist student group are said to be sympathetic to MHP while the leftist students seemed to be an amalgam of socialists and Kurdish sympathizers. Some of the students in the latter group are being reported by Turkish papers to be "PKK-sympathizers," but this is not an uncommon claim leveled against radical Kurds with strong leftist leanings.

The rightist students were apparently joined on Friday by a gunman identified as Ömer Ulusoy who might or might not have ties to MHP, but is at least sympathetic to the party's nationalist ideology and is said to have visited Antalya MHP headquarters earlier in the week. Revelations of links to MHP have led MHP leader Bahçeli to denounce the actions of the rightist students and move to distance himself from Ulusoy. Indeed, Bahçeli even portrayed the incidents as "traps" aimed to weaken the national movement—inevitably that of the 'true nationalists' as opposed to the man with a gun and a bizarre nationalist tattoo blazoned across his face.

Why did Bahçeli act so quickly to distance himself from Ulusoy and the rightist student group? The answer lies in MHP's past. The party was founded by ultra-nationalist Alpaslan Türkeş in the late 1960s. Türkeş held high rank in the military before the 1960 coup and was chosen by the National Unity Committee (NUC) to announce the military's overthrow of the Menderes government in 1960. Türkeş was a pan-Turkist whose normative vision of the Turkish state bordered on fascism and he soon parted ways with the much more moderate NUC and was quietly moved to a diplomatic post in Dehli.

The political party he founded upon his return reflected his nationalist ideology and a belief in a unitary Turkish state in line with his interpretation of Kemalism. This interpretation rested on the idea that Atatürk's vision of the Turkish state rejected the regional, ethnic, and sectarian differences and called for Turks to be united under a government for Turks, by Turks. The singularity of Türkeş' vision is thought abhorrent by many of Turkey's religious and ethnic minorities (many of whom also consider themselves Turks), but made perfect sense to Türkeş when combined with the Ergenekon myth that all Turks share a common ancestry (being led out of their ancestral homeland by a wolf and through the mountains to their new home in Anatolia).

Although the early party was not particularly successful in electoral politics, it gained notoriety when it founded its youth organization, the Hearths of the Ideal (Ülkü Ocakları). Members of the group began to call themselves the "Grey Wolves" ("Bozkurtlar") and the group soon took on a paramilitary dimension when it opened camps to train members to engage in violent acts against the Turkish left. The enemy of the time was not Islamist, but communist, and the Grey Wolves became an increasing threat to those who it saw as opposed to their Sunni Muslim-Turkish identity. By the late 1970s, political violence against the left was rife and reveals itself most violently in the slaughter of Alevis that took place in Kahramanmaraş in December 1978 when well over 100 Alevis were murdered in a pogrom organized by the Grey Wolves. The Grey Wolves had two reasons to hate the Alevis: first, they practice a heterodox form of Shi'a Islam that was at odds with their Sunni bigotry, and second, the Alevis were generally aligned with the left. It is also likely that the group was responsible for the May Day violence of 1977 in which 39 people lost their lives when unknown gunmen opened fire on leftist protesters and operated with the cooperation of some sectors of the Turkish Armed Forces as part of the theorized "deep state" (see Jan. 25 post).

Violent acts were also engaged in on the part of the extreme left, but did not compare to the prolific heinousness of the Grey Wolves. Indeed, the violence of both groups attributed to the political instability that the military coup of 1980 claimed as justification for their political intervention. After the military seized control in September of that year, it closed down all political parties, began work on a new constitution, and arrested and tortured several people it claimed to be trouble-makers. Those arrested included Türkeş and members of the Grey Wolves, but the principal aim of the military was to end what it saw as an emerging threat coming from the radical Turkish left (a view it had in common with the Grey Wolves). As in Iran in the 1970s, several leftists were detained for indefinite periods of time in political prisons and subjected to tortured. Interestingly, there is evidence that implicates United States-CIA involvement in the coup and that puts these events in the Cold War context in which they occurred.

It is interesting to think of how exogenous the events at Akdeniz seems in the stalemate of the current political climate. The factors for this stalemate are twofold: first, the moderation of the radical right to a degree that it is now able to represent itself in the form of an establishment party; second, the demise of the Turkish left to such a degree that its policies now seem more in line with the far right than with its own history (see Feb. 12 post).

To explain the first factor, it is necessary to understand the development of MHP in the post-coup years. In many ways, the 1980 coup tamed it and with its reconstitution in 1983, MHP began to move past its involvement in paramilitary activities and at the same time seek a greater role in electoral politics. With the death of Türkeş in 1997, Bahçeli further moderated the party's positions while also seeking to expand its base by appealing to pious Muslim voters with strong natioanlist leanings. The party became declared its opposition to the türban ban at universities and argued that türban-wearing women should be able to work in government. In 1999, the party won 18 percent of the vote thanks to this more religious platform and promises to execute Abdullah Öcalan.

Some have attributed the rise of MHP as symptomatic of an increase in nationalist feeling in recent years, but others have pointed to the party's success as rooted in the turbulent political situation in which Turkey found itself when the old center-right parties weakened in the closing years of the 1990s. Worthy of examination is Bülent Aras and Gökcen Bacık's 2000 article, "The Rise of the Nationalist Action Party and Turkish Politics" in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics (Vol. 6:2, pp. 48-64), in which the authors argue the latter.

The entrance of MHP as a legitimate and powerful political player was in many ways made possible by the confusion of the left. Much like MHP, CHP is vehemently opposed to lifting restrictions on freedom of expression and is increasingly hostile toward the country's aspirations to join the EU. These attitudes are largely driven by a refusal to negotiate the meaning of secularism and the fierce nationalism with which it is accompanied. As a result, MHP and CHP are much similar to each other now than they were in the 1970s when MHP represented the extreme right and CHP a much less reactionary center-left. With the threat no longer being communism, but political Islam, CHP has come to embrace a reactionary ideology akin to MHP while the latter has less to react against.

More food for thought is MHP's Islamic identity sans its embrace of democratic liberalism. If a comparison is to be made between MHP, RP, and AKP, it seems that the first two would have much more in common than the latter two in that AKP has at the very least espoused a belief in democratic liberalism whereby an Islamic observance like wearing the türban is merely allowed, not mandated. MHP has most definitely not argued that religious observances should be forced on all Turks, but its linking of Islam with a hegemonic conception of Turkish identity seems much more a potential threat to secularism.

One additional note: The idea of Turkish superiority fostered by the right is far from disappeared. Following the İzmit earthquake in 1999, the Minister of Health, Osman Durmuş, tried to prevent the delivery of much needed blood donated from other countries because he claimed that Turks do not need foreign blood.

And, as a footnote, the terms "right" and "left" are deeply contextualized in Turkish politics and can mean very little sans historical references, as the terms are often used by political actors to suit particular political exigencies.

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