The Politics of Fear: The Rise of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in Turkey

Article excerpt

This article analyzes the causes and consequences of the nationalist party politics in Turkey by focusing on the rise of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The article identifies three interrelated processes to explain the MHP's rising status in 1999. First, neo-liberal economic policies of the early 1980s generated the formation of new opportunity spaces in media, education, politics, and market. Second, these opportunity spaces, in turn, empowered ethnic and religious groups to demand recognition and reconfiguration of the state ideology. Third, the failure of the ideologically rigid Turkish state to cope with these new identity claims prompted the military-dominated state elite to define the Kurdish and Islamic identity claims as existential threats to the core values of the state ideology. Being in a coalition, the MHP has given up its identity to become respectful in the eyes of the governing ossified military-bureaucratic elite.

One of the unexpected results of Turkey's April 1999 general elections was the serious erosion of the political center, a development that has grave implications for efforts to institutionalize the country's already weak democratic processes.' The two parties that emerged with the largest number of votes from the general elections, the Democratic Left Party (DSP), led by Bulent Ecevit, and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahqeli, both espouse a militant and particularistic version of nationalism that is hostile to Turkey's diverse ethnic - primarily Kurds - and religious groups. By making stunning gains in central and western Anatolia, these nationalist parties won a combined total of 40 percent of the popular vote, became the two largest blocs in the parliament, and joined to forma coalition government.2 The DSP was created by veteran politician and current Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, but it is not so much a mass party as one dependent on his personal popularity and character.

The success of the MHP, in contrast, is much more significant because it is a long-established party with branches throughout the country. Yet, prior to 1999, the MHP had not been able to attract more than a small fraction of the vote (see Table I below). How was it possible for this inexperienced party to more than double its share of the vote to 18% of the electorate, in effect persuading nearly one-fifth of Turks to support its nationalistic project? Although various explanations have been offered for this phenomenon,3 I believe that the MHP's rising status is an outcome of three complementary processes. First, the neo-liberal economic policies of the early 1980s generated the formation of new opportunity spaces in media, education, politics, and market. Second, these opportunity spaces, in turn, empowered ethnic and religious groups to demand recognition and reconfiguration of the state ideology. Third, the state establishment, mainly the military and civilian bureaucracy, reacted to these identity claims as security threats, and the securitization of Kurdish and Islamic identity claims further politicized the society. In effect, the MHP was able to benefit from an emerging socio-cultural polarization that primarily is along an ethnic (Kurdish vs. Turkish) and religious (Alevi Islam vs. Sunni Islam) axis.' For example, even though various groups in Turkey have been using new opportunity spaces created by the international media, the market, and education to assert their "identities," the Turkish polity that has evolved since Kemal AtatUrk created the republic in 1923 lacks a shared and absorbing social contract to cope with cultural diversity. As a result, supporters of the MHP, as well as the military, perceive the "new" identity claims as an "existential" threat to the state.

It is not just internal forces that have reactivated a dormant Turkish nationalism preoccupied with security concerns. The MHP effectively tapped into popular views that regard external forces as being anti-Turk. …