Extremist rhetorics and parties influencing Turkish politics

By Kenan Bozkurt, independent Turkish journalist and political analyst. Kenan lives in Istanbul and Brussels, beside his journalistic work for international media he is also advising EU-institutions on Turkey-related topics.

Turkish extremist right-wing parties are disproportionately represented in the security apparatus and are trying to influence President Erdogan’s government with provocations on important issues. Currently, two of the country’s four right-wing extremist parties are particularly successful: the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), founded in 1969, the parent organization of chauvinist Turkish nationalism, and the Victory Party (Zafer Partisi), which was just recently founded in August 2021.

With 48 mandates, the MHP helps Erdogan’s AKP achieve a majority in parliament, but it does not share executive responsibility. From time to time, its chairman Devlet Bahceli increases the pressure on the government, like an opposition leader. Just last month, he presented a map of the Aegean Sea on which all the islands that are up to 100 kilometers from the Turkish coast and even Crete are marked as Turkish territory. Bahceli’s provocation achieved its purpose: Erdogan escalated his rhetoric against Greece, and tensions have been rising in the Aegean ever since.

With his recent decision, Erdogan sent a drillship to the eastern Mediterranean. This means that another dispute with neighboring Greece is programmed. Previous voyages by Turkish drilling or research vessels prospecting for mineral resources in the eastern Mediterranean had brought Turkey and Greece to the brink of military conflict in 2020. Turkey had its ships escorted by frigates, and Greece then also sent warships.

The drillship Abdülhamid Han left the Anatolian port of Mersin this week. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at the ceremony after which the ship set off on its journey that it would first go to the Iskenderun region and then “keep looking until it finds something”. For the “research and drilling work”, according to Erdoğan, “one does not have to obtain permission or approval from anyone”.

In the eastern Mediterranean, large natural gas deposits are suspected under the seabed, as well as other valuable raw materials. The course of the sea borders between Greece and Turkey has also given rise to disputes for decades. Because the ownership of gas, oil or other natural resources is also linked to the borders. Turkey sees itself hampered in its right to potential exploitation because Greece has staked out its borders around its islands to Turkey’s detriment, using even tiny uninhabited rocks as a basis.

However, the sea borders of the EU state of Greece are widely recognized internationally. Unlike Ankara, Athens has also signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982. It regulates the use of the oceans. The extraction rights for raw materials and the fishing rights are determined on the basis of sea borders. It’s about the reach of a country’s continental shelf and “exclusive economic zones” that a state can claim. Turkey has never joined the agreement and does not feel bound by it.

Parliamentary and presidential election come closer to a political system, where Erdogan’s AKP-party can no longer be sure to win the exit polls. With the pressure of the right-wing movement and the President’s reactions, he is trying to gain momentum again.

And the extremists are seeing their chance as well, now not only using nationalistic rhetorics, but combining populism with Islamist phrases. The Great Unity Party (BBP) for example was founded in 1993 by former MHP party officials, adding Islamist ideology to the MHP’s Pan-Turanic sentiment. Members of the BBP were behind the murder of Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink in 2007. An offshoot of the BBP in Western Europe is the Germany-based „Association of Turkish Cultural Associations in Europe“ (ATB).

But the political radicalism of the MHP was not supported by all party members: In October 2017 there was a spin-off that weakened MHP. Meral Aksener and her supporters left the MHP and founded the „Good Party“ (Iyi Parti), because they no longer wanted to support the toleration of the AKP government by MHP chairman Bahceli and his right-wing extremist policies. She has been firmly anchored in the opposition camp ever since. For the right wing of the party, which has 37 MPs in Ankara’s parliament, the MHP’s nationalist wolf salute is still part of the ritual.

While the Iyi Parti participates constructively in Turkish politics, the Zafer Partisi, the most recent split, thrives on provocation. One example is the video “Silent Invasion” (Sessiz istila) commissioned by its chairman Ümit Özdag. The 15-minute video was uploaded to YouTube in spring and has since been viewed by millions, not only in Turkey, but also by Turkish migrants in Western Europe. The xenophobic mess shows how the Arabs will take over Turkey in two decades and subjugate the Turks. In a dramatic tone, the video calls for action before it is too late.

Özdag was also among those who left the MHP and founded the Iyi Parti. One of his key demands recently: to immediately expel all refugees from Turkey. He invokes a “migration of peoples” and stirs up fears of alleged foreign infiltration in Turkey.

In doing so, he hits a nerve with the Turkish population, who are suffering from a loss of prosperity as a result of a massive economic crisis. Özdag claims that Turks can’t find housing or jobs because of refugees, mainly from Syria.

When he founded the Zafer Partisi almost a year ago, his first official act was to visit the grave of Alparslan Türkes. He thus claimed to be the heir to the father of the Turkish Gray Wolves and, like him, to fight for an ethnically homogeneous Turkey. And he launched his campaign against the Erdogan government’s refugee policy.

In polls, the young right-wing populist party is already at two percent. In elections, it would take votes away from the alliance of AKP and MHP, but presumably also from the loose alliance of the opposition, to which the Iyi Parti belongs. His popularity benefits from the fact that he is not afraid to stage provocations.

When Interior Minister Soylu criticized a video by Özdag on social media, where he was talking about a „silent Invasion” of Syrian migrants to Turkey, Soylu accused Özdag of being “lower than an animal”, whereupon the offended challenged him to a duel, albeit one without weapons, he emphasized. But when he appeared in front of the Ministry, unimpressed security guards ignored him. There was no duel. Özdag had made headlines again and scored points with his supporters. And he is forcing Erdogan to correct the course of refugee policy.

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