“I want to hear your roar for a strong government,” he yelled to the Istanbul crowd in the last rally on the banks of the Bosphorus, aiming to set alight people’s pride and light the fire of hyper-nationalism.
To understand the popularity of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a president with full powers and near-absolute ruler of Turkey, we journalists (and maybe even the pollsters) should look not so much to the brilliant and highly intellectual bourgeoisie of Istanbul, but rather to those who live in “deep Turkey.” I was struck by this on the eve of the vote, as I was conversing here in Istanbul with Ferzan Ozpetek, the director of Naples in Veils and other excellent films, almost all inspired by the Italian tradition—as he himself notes with pride.
Since 2002, the Islamist AKP party has won 12 elections, and in the meantime the Turks have doubled their average income per capita in a decade. Even as Erdogan’s most serious competitor, Muharrem Ince of the CHP Republican Party, has revitalized the opposition with immense rallies, for almost a generation most Turks have been inclined to give more confidence to Erdogan than to anyone else.
And even more—especially after the failed coup of July 2016, a majority seems to be willing to accept the hundreds of thousands of arrests of both “Gulenists” and innocents, because the Reis (“the Chief” in Turkish) stands for continuity, and the continuation of a dream of modernization and social and economic emancipation for the more traditional sectors of the population, which secularists have been completely unable to represent in the view of the Turkish masses.
It is not comfortable bourgeois cosmopolitanism that wins politically in Turkey, but a strong and at times exasperated nationalism. Indeed, a hyper-nationalism, as evidenced by the winning electoral alliance forged by Erdogan and his AKP, an Islamist and conservative party, with the extreme-right MHP party, the infamous “Gray Wolves” founded by Colonel Arsplan Turkes in the sixties and seventies, whose best-known member to us is Ali Agca, who tried to assassinate Pope Wojtyla.
Today, those who are celebrating in Turkey are Reis Erdogan and MHP leader Develet Bahceli, but also the Kurds in Diyarbakir, who have greeted the news of the entry into parliament of the HDP party with great enthusiasm—but whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is, on the other hand, still in prison.
Perhaps the most unexpected and interesting aspect of these elections has been precisely the rise of MHP in the polls—the party of the ultra-nationalist movement, fiercely anti-Kurdish and Eurosceptic, led by Bahceli. On the eve of the elections, it was projected to receive less than 6-8 percent, and it seemed that Erdogan was its lifeline for survival. Instead, after receiving more than 11 percent of the vote, they were the ones who gave the AKP a majority in parliament.
This is the party of those “Gray Wolves” who were members of the infamous Derin Devlet, the “Deep State,” which historically has known how to maneuver in the murkiest waters of Turkish politics: they are in fact the heirs of the alliance with the CIA in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and they were the members of the clandestine “Stay Behind” (Gladio) anti-Communist networks set up by NATO.
They are ultranationalists, but with a religious component: MHP’s founder, Colonel Alparslan Turkes, said that “nationalism was the politics” of his party and “Islam its soul.” This is a movement faithful to a Turkish-centric vision of international relations, and which supports the restoration of the death penalty, which Erdogan has promised on occasion, each time sending shivers down the spine of those in the opposition, as well as us in Europe.
Hyper-nationalism, even more than religion, has become the true electoral fuel for Erdogan, who before calling these early elections launched the offensive against the Kurds in the Syrian enclave of Afrin, and then relied on nationalism to take the attention off the bad performance of the economy.
Now, the future seems to hold a five-year term for “the Sultan” with almost absolute powers, but in a country increasingly split in half, divided between the religious and the secular, between nationalists and Kurds, with an economy that is sputtering and a lira that is vulnerable on the markets. For this reason, Erdogan is expected to form a government perhaps less closely linked to the inner circle of the AKP, and with some officials who are more presentable on the international stage, in order to gain credibility in the markets.
What will he do in terms of foreign policy? The rapprochement with Russia and close relations with Iran can be taken as givens for now. The real issue is the relationship with the US and NATO, of which Turkey is a historic member: the recent delivery to Ankara of the first F-35 fighter, which otherwise remains tucked away in American hangars, is a sign of the easing of tensions, as well as the joint military operations with the US in northern Syria. But the fact that the Imam Fethullah Gülen, said to be the instigator of the failed coup, remains in exile in the United States is a cause of latent tension.
As for what Europe is still concerned about: Erdogan is the well-paid guard of three million Syrian refugees, and almost 50 percent of Turkish exports go to Europe while 70 percent of Turkish corporate debt is held by European banks. But Europe as a political influence is looking less and less attractive—particularly our current Union, increasingly fractious and disunited.