Felicity Party can ‘strike a blow against AKP–MHP alliance in Turkey’s 2019 elections’

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The Felicity Party (SP), which “represents the ‘National View’ of political Islam,” has become a key party for Turkey’s 2019 general elections, according to Behlül Özkan, an associate professor at Istanbul’s Marmara University.

“The SP will likely present its own candidate in the presidential election but Erdoğan is still very effective among the SP’s supporters,” Özkan told the Hürriyet Daily News.

How would you define the SP?

The SP represents the “National View” of political Islam as formulated by the late Necmettin Erbakan. As the establishment of political parties using religious symbols is still banned by the constitution, it can never say it represents political Islam. That’s why it uses the concept of “National View,” which argues that Turkey’s fundamental identity is its Muslim identity. This view argues that the secular nation state identity endorsed with the establishment of the Republic does not reflect the views of Muslims living in Turkey. Erbakan argued that both right wing and left wing parties in Turkey were the product of “foreign” ideologies. As he used to say: “They are foreign, we are national. “

So can we say that the current leadership of the SP are in line with the founding fathers of political Islam in Turkey?

Indeed. With the founding of the Justice and Development Party [AKP], the “National View” line divided between the traditionalists and the reformists. Current SP leader Temel Karamollaoğlu is one of the last representatives of the traditionalists.

If AKP leaders represent the new generation, saying they are “taking off the ‘National View’ jacket,” does it mean they are putting the jacket back on as they have in recent years endorsed an anti–Western line? What separates the AKP from the SP today?

There is no way for the AKP to put that jacket back on. It has grown so much that it can no longer fit in that jacket. The AKP’s economic policies, privatization, its close cooperation with Western and Arab Gulf financial institutions, and its links to global capital all run counter to Erbakan’s vision.

But currently the AKP also frequently uses the “national and local” rhetoric.

That is mere rhetoric. The AKP is a neoliberal party. Even if there is tension from time to time, I don’t think the AKP can take Turkey out of NATO, close the İncirlik airbase, or end relations with the EU or the United States. This shows that the AKP is still far away from the “National View” line. It represents a different aspect of political Islam.

So do you believe that the SP can be a king-maker as some have started to suggest?

Since 2002 the votes of the SP have ranged between 0.7 percent and 5 percent. The “National View” line traditionally has a vote basis of between 8 to 11 percent. The AKP essentially attracted the votes of the center right, as there is no party remaining in the center right in Turkey. With the AKP’s recent alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], it seems that voters in the center right will stick with that alliance. But there are two parties that can steal votes from that alliance: The SP and the İYİ [Good] Party. The SP could attract some more of the votes of the “National View” line, while the İYİ Party could attract votes from the center right.

Until recently the SP had a problem with the 10 percent election threshold on entering parliament. Its voters often said they want to vote for the SP but it doesn’t have a chance of getting over the threshold. So in order not to waste their vote they kept voting for the AKP. In the upcoming elections the highest vote rate that the SP can probably get ranges between 5 and 7 percent. If it were to increase its votes from 1 to 5 percent, that 4 percent will come from the AKP, and that could strike a serious blow to the AKP–MHP alliance.

Who are the ones who could vote for the SP?

The SP is strong in Anatolian provinces like Konya, Sivas, Maraş, Erzurum. And there are certain clusters from which it can get votes, depending on which party it enters into an alliance with. It can attract the votes of conservatives suffering from economic strains and living on the urban periphery, who think that while they share the same conservative values they belong to a different class from the [AKP’s] ruling elites, who have become much wealthier. There is serious resentment among them but they cannot find a party to channel this resentment. Finally, the AKP–MHP alliance has also raised more questions for Kurds. Conservative Kurds who have been voting for the AKP could go to the SP.

These three clusters correspond potentially to a voter base of 10 or 15 percent. But even if the SP can only get 5 percent, that is still very significant. That’s why it is very important which party the SP will make an alliance with. If it makes an alliance with the İYİ Party it could lose the votes of conservative Kurds. If it makes an alliance with the Republican People’s Party [CHP] it could lose the conservatives in Anatolia. If it makes an alliance with the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] it could get a significant amount of votes from Kurds but lose Turkish nationalist conservatives. At any rate, the SP has certainly become a key party for the 2019 general elections.

What about for the presidential elections?

The SP will likely present its own candidate, but Erdoğan is still very effective among the SP’s supporters. I don’t think SP can make a difference in the presidential election. The SP supporters would say “let’s vote for Erdoğan but let’s also have the SP in parliament to balance him.” SP voters could prevent Erdoğan from winning in the first round, but those who voted for the SP candidate would end up voting for Erdoğan in the second round.

Do you think disproportionate attention is currently being paid to the SP?

CHP supporters are frustrated that the AKP’s votes are not decreasing. They are wondering how they can divide the AKP–MHP alliance. That is where the SP comes to the agenda. CHP supporters could be ready to support a CHP-SP alliance just for the sake of preventing the other side from winning. But there is no such dedication in the SP constituency. And based on what shared values can the CHP and the SP forge an alliance anyway? Justice, freedoms, secularism?

So what is the SP’s current strategy?

The SP has said it will not join the AKP–MHP alliance. That’s understandable. The SP would be in a self-denial if it were to enter the AKP–MHP alliance. The SP claims to be different from all other parties. It says: “Even if we are on just two percent, we should continue.” The “National View” will always continue its historic legacy and will always be present in the Turkish political spectrum. And right now it wants to make a comeback. The SP has been outside of parliament since 2002. If it now makes an alliance with the İYİ Party, for example, and enters parliament that way, it could inspire hope in its voters. It would also be an important turning point for the wider opposition if the AKP were to lose its majority in parliament.

What exactly does the SP have to say in today’s world?

It has an anti-Western stance, questioning Turkey’s alliance with the West. There is a huge gap between the foreign policies of the AKP and the SP. The SP is one of the parties that has strongly criticized Turkey’s Syria policy since 2011. It is against Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition in cooperation with the U.S. The main argument of the “National View” is that in countries where Muslims are a majority, Turkey should not become a party to domestic political issues, as it believes that doing so only divides the Islamic world, which suits the interests of the West.

WHO IS BEHLÜL ÖZKAN?

Behlül Özkan completed his bachelor studies at the Boğaziçi University Department of Political Sciences and International Relations.

He then performed his graduate studies and received his PhD from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

He is currently Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Marmara University. He is the author of “From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: Making of a National Homeland in Turkey” (Yale University Press, 2012).

He has also contributed op-eds to the New York Times, Huffington Post and OpenDemocracy. Özkan has been working on Political Islam in Turkey for years and published various academic articles on this subject.

His most recent article “The Cold War-era Origins of Islamism in Turkey and its Rise to Power” was published by the journal Current Trends in Islamist Ideology in November 2017.

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