Hannah Lucinda Smith

President Erdogan’s nationalist game plan

President Erdogan's nationalist game plan
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Ask any two Turkish nationalists how they will vote in their country’s upcoming referendum, and you’re likely to get two different answers. In just under a month, Turks will vote on a constitutional amendment that, if passed, will usher in the biggest political revolution since Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic. It would shift the country from parliamentary democracy to executive presidency.

This weekend I called round my contacts from Turkey’s various nationalist groups and asked them how they will vote. Exactly half said they will tick the box supporting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his bid to become executive president with almost unchallenged power, and a potential mandate until 2029. The other half said they will vote no, and accompanied their answers with streams of unprintable profanities. In Turkey, they substitute sushi for Marmite when speaking of things that are deeply divisive; for the nationalists, Erdogan is a sushi politician.

The Turks who define themselves as nationalist – or ‘milliyetci’ – span from the mainstream Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the fourth biggest party in the Turkish parliament, to the fringe Rights and Equality Party, whose supporters cling to conspiracy theories about Zionist world domination. They cross every cleavage in Turkish society, encompassing religious and secular, rich and poor, urban sophisticates and rural peasants. What binds them is a deep love for their country that often teeters over into a paranoid belief that the rest of the world is out to destroy it.

And it is the nationalists who will decide this referendum. The vote looks set to split down party lines, with supporters of Erdogan’s AKP voting yes and followers of the secularist CHP and Kurdish-rooted HDP voting no. The MHP is the wildcard. While its leader Devlet Bahceli has decided to back Erdogan, many in his party and in the rest of the nationalist grassroots movement disagree.

Should too many from the nationalist camp decide to vote no, it could tip the balance. This explains why Erdogan is now playing all the tricks in his hand in a bid to win nationalist hearts. So while last week’s row between Turkey and the Netherlands may have looked baffling from Europe, it made perfect sense from a Turkish point of view. 

'They revived the story of Red Riding Hood, but with a lady wearing a headscarf,' said one of my correspondents. 'And now Erdogan is guaranteed two more points in the referendum for defending the county against the infidels.' He was referring to Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, Turkey’s family minister, who was denied entry to the Netherlands earlier this month. She had been planning to host a rally for the Yes campaign in Rotterdam, where there is a sizeable Turkish community, despite having been asked by the Dutch authorities not to do so. When she tried nonetheless, she was, in her words, 'rudely treated' by the Dutch police.

The incident sparked some indignation back in Turkey. Crowds gathered outside the Dutch embassy and Istanbul consulate. For a short while, the Turkish flag - hoisted by an 'unidentified man' - fluttered over the roof of the latter in place of the Dutch flag. Members of the Physically Impaired Individuals’ Association assembled in a park in the southern city of Gaziantep with placards declaring ‘Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya is not alone’. Members of the AKP’s youth branch stabbed at oranges. But as demonstrations of mass anger go, this particular one wasn't hugely convincing. 'The situation with Holland is fake!' said one man, who spent his teenage years living in Europe. 'I just hope that nationalists properly analyse the situation.'

Others, though, say that the Dutch debacle has boosted Erdogan’s vote. 'The nationalist vote was 50/50, but after the latest news in Europe the nationalists are 65 percent yes,' a leader of the nationalist youth movement the Grey Wolves said. 'All of the world says no to Turks. So we will vote yes, as a reply to Europe.' This is exactly the kind of reaction that Turkey's president is hoping for. Whether his gamble will work is unclear, but expect more diplomatic crises - and displays of strength - as Erdogan's referendum approaches.

Hannah Lucinda Smith is Istanbul correspondent for the Times