Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is AKP Nationalism a Mistake?

In recent weeks, the AKP has taken an increasingly nationalist tone. As AKP puts its effort into winning votes from the constituency of the ultra-nationalist MHP, it risks not only a massive electoral loss in Turkey's Kurdish southeast but stoking Kurdish counter-nationalist sentiments. The violence, which should be read as a backlash against the AKP, is already at a level the ruling party has yet to see and risks getting worse.

Milliyet columnist Semih Idiz argues that the AKP is playing with fire. As large scale protests continue throughout the southeast in response to allegations that the Turkish military, which is in theory now under the command of the AKP civilian government, abandoned the bodies of 12 PKK militants, the prime minister continues to play the nationalist card.

Since the failed Kurdish opening, Erdogan has taken the position that there are "good Kurds" and "bad Kurds," and that it is the latter who are at the heart of the unrest. At the same time, he has seemingly drawn back from previous government initiatives to provide the Kurds with more cultural rights and is instead focusing on "eliminating" the "bad Kurds," which many in the region see the AKP as doing by way of the KCK operations, which began after the AKP suffered electoral losses in the 2009 local elections.

Pandering to nationalist sentiment makes sense from one angle. In recent public opinion polls, the MHP is hovering at the 10% threshold required for political parties to enter parliament and the party will likely fare even worse given the sex scandal in which it is now deeply entangled. If the AKP can shut the MHP out parliament, it will be that much closer to the super majority required to enact a new constitution unilaterally and without going to referendum.

While some AKP apologists have made claims that the military action not to return the bodies to their families (a claim that is still confusing and largely unsubstantiated) is the result of a deep state conspiracy aimed at undermining the AKP before elections (a frequently convenient, oft-used excuse), the AKP is doing little to step back from its nationalist posturing. From Idiz:
How Erdoğan can stand up, in the face of what is actually happening, and claim that “Turkey’s Kurdish problem is over” is a mystery. He appears to be telling us that all the protests we see by the Kurds, the position that the BDP is taking in this respect, and the intense public debate about this issue represent something other than the Kurdish problem.

Even the highly respect columnist Hasan Cemal, who is known for supporting the AKP and also for his outspoken stance on issues like the Kurdish issue, is admitting that Erdoğan’s playing of the nationalist card to undermine the MHP has crossed a line. Erdoğan is relying on the fact that the MHP’s nationalist strongholds all voted “yes” for the AKP’s package of constitutional amendments in last September’s referendum.

That happened despite the fact that MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli argued against the constitutional changes by maintaining that Erdoğan was betraying the country and actively dividing it with his Kurdish initiative. Under normal circumstances, this allegation should have made MHP supporters vote against the constitutional amendments. But it did not, thus encouraging Erdoğan to switch from a position of empathy with the Kurds to pandering to the nationalists.

. . . .

There are also those, Cemal being one of them, who argue that if the Turkish army is under the orders of the elected government, as the AKP claims it is when it serves its interests to do so, then Erdoğan should step in and prevent the military from engaging in operations that merely make a bad situation worse. In the meantime there are regional developments that stand to aggravate the issue further.

Ankara has of course normalized ties with the Kurds of northern Iraq, and as belated as this was, it is nevertheless a good development contributing to regional stability. Developments in Syria, however, have energized the Kurdish movement in that country and it is not clear how this situation will affect Turkey’s Kurdish problem.

The bottom line here is that there appears to be little political wisdom in Erdoğan’s current approach to the problem, which in fact smacks of political opportunism aimed at the nationalist vote, rather than a consideration of the welfare of the whole of Turkey. But what he is achieving in doing this is stoking up Kurdish nationalism and contributing to a further division of the country.
While the party won over many Kurdish skeptics in 2005 when Erdogan delivered a landmark speech painting Turkey as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, a speech that eschewed nationalism and began to move understanding "Turkishness" as something other than an ethnic or even national identity, those votes are mostly gone. Given the crisis in Syria and that the AKP is likely to lose a huge number of Kurdish voters in the southeast, what is happening in the southeast right now is particularly dangerous.

The June elections will be a showdown between the AKP and the PKK-affiliated BDP, and at the moment, neither side is taking a nonviolent, accommodationist position. Unless something changes, just what will come of this cannot possibly be good.

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