The Year of the Gray Wolf: The Rise of Turkey’s New Ultranationalism


On June 24, Turkey went through historic snap elections for both the presidency and parliament. The twin elections were the first of their kind, following the constitutional amendments of April 2017 that transformed Turkey’s more than 90-year-old political system. At first glance, Turkey’s controversial president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) appear to have won, although in a process that was arguably neither fair nor free. Erdogan won 52.59 percent of the presidential votes. The AKP and its coalition partner, the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), won 53.7 percent of the votes and 344 seats in parliament (295 for the AKP, 49 for the MHP) out of 600. On the ground, not much has changed: After sixteen years and counting, Erdogan is still in power and is still winning.

However, the real winner, and the biggest surprise, of the June elections was the MHP’s leader Devlet Bahceli, who made the call for snap elections in the first place. The common assumption among Turkey watchers was that the MHP could not get more than 7 percent of the votes, as opposed to 11.9 percent from last elections in 2015. They thought this for the simple reason that a new party splintered from the MHP — the Good Party (IYI), led by Meral Aksener — and that defection looked like it would severely diminish the MHP’s base.

The election results proved all Turkey commentators, including yours truly, wrong. The MHP stabilized its votes at 11.7 percent, despite the fact that the IYI won 10 percent, 7 percent of whom were previously MHP voters. The MHP appears to have made up the difference by drawing in some voters who formerly supported its coalition partner, the AKP. The MHP was able to accomplish this in elections that are considered neither free nor fair: Erdogan’s control of state institutions and media heavily tilted the election results toward the AKP. It is true that the MHP, as an AKP coalition partner, was not subject to the same sort of repression and delegitimization often experienced by the other parties, but it is just as important to note that the MHP also did not hold a single rally, and Bahceli received minimal air time in the media. Regardless, Bahceli outperformed all expectations.

More strikingly, both the MHP and the IYI performed well: as a start-up, the IYI received 10 percent of the votes and 43 parliamentary seats. The IYI accomplished this despite the fact that the AKP denied the new party any real media presence and even went to lengths to portray it as a “FETO project,” referring to the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, public enemy number one in Turkey. Overall, the elections literally doubled the political might of the broader ultranationalist movement. Bahceli emerged as a kingmaker. Without him, Erdogan would likely have not emerged triumphant in the first round of the presidential race (if he had not won a majority in the first round, there would have been a second).

This year has been the best the ultranationalist movement has seen in decades. What are we to make of this? And what are the implications of this surprise for Turkish politics?

Three interrelated factors can explain the MHP’s success. The first is a deep undercurrent in Turkish politics: A new brand of ultranationalism has been on the rise for a long time, and it has begun to have tangible impacts on the ballot box. Second, by turning to ultranationalist discourses — which he had slammed in the past — for short-term benefits in 2015, Erdogan brought this on himself. Ultranationalism proved to be a tiger he cannot control all by himself, partially because Bahceli has the tiger’s ear.

The third dynamic can be referred to as the “Bahceli factor.” Bahceli has long been ignored and even ridiculed by the opposition after his decision to first support and then join Erdogan from 2015 onward. He has usually been portrayed as an irrelevant and impotent “stepne” (spare tire) who allied with the president just to secure his leadership of the MHP. The recent elections suggest an alternative interpretation. Perhaps Bahceli is far from irrelevant, and has secured what he might have long envisioned: a Turkey where ultranationalist vision dominates politics, even if his own party may not be governing it.

The rise of ultranationalism in Turkey will likely lead to three outcomes. First, unless Erdogan finds a way to upend the MHP leader, Bahceli will ensure that AKP does not tone down its anti-PKK posture within and outside of Turkey. Second, Turkey’s relationship with the West will be increasingly shaped by the evolution of the triangular deadlock between Turkey, the United States, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Third, Turkey’s new ultranationalism will exert even more influence in Turkish politics down the road. Put differently, the June elections showed that ultranationalism has evolved into a potent political force, the direction of which is hard to predict, and it is here to stay for a long time.

What is “New” and “Ultra” About Turkey’s New Ultranationalism

Any argument that entails the term ultranationalism requires elaboration into what “nationalism” means in the Turkish context. In Turkey, nationalism is invoked by almost all political factions in a positive way, though each may attribute a different meaning to the term, while also claiming that their “interpretation” is the correct or superior one. This is hardly surprising, since Turkey’s century-long political evolution can be seen as a competition between different interpretations of the question, “what kind of a nation Turkey should be?”

The origins of Turkish nationalism as a modern phenomenon can be traced to the late-19th century. By the second half that century, the Ottoman Empire was facing many of crises and challenges emanating from both military defeats at the hands of more “modern” foreign competitors and ethnic nationalism rising throughout the empire, especially in the Balkans. Ottoman sultans, most notably, Sultan Abdulhamit II (reigning between 1876 and 1909), responded to these challenges in two ways: by creating a “Westernized” cadre of military officers and bureaucrats to match the Ottomans’ foreign rivals, and by trying to empower a transnational ideology of “Ottomanism” that could undercut ethnic nationalism.

Ottomanism was still-born and failed to galvanize mass support behind the empire. The efforts to Westernize the military and bureaucracy led to unintended consequences. A new generation of officers and bureaucrats, some of whom trained in the Europe, ended up being inspired and enamored not only by the “modern” West, but also by the idea and power of [ethnic] nationalism, which they found lacking in the Ottoman Empire. The so-called “Young Turks” eventually grew into prominence in the state, eventually deposing Abdulhamit in 1909. Ironically, Abdulhamit became a victim of a dynamic he helped empower in the first place.

Modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former military officer, was a product of the same Westernization efforts. Ataturk envisioned a secular and ethnic, as opposed to civic “Turkish” national identity for the new state, but faced challenges on both accounts. While secularism was a potent force among bureaucrats and some urbanites, the overwhelming majority of the population remained conservative Muslims. Furthermore, the kind of ethnic nationalism he sought to inspire in the country did not instantly “connect” with the masses, for two reasons. First, while ethnic Turks constituted the majority, there were also substantial numbers of other ethnic groups, including not only the Kurds, but also the Albanians, Laz, Circassians, Tatars, and Boshnaks among many others. The second challenge involved ethnic Turks themselves: the Ottoman sultans had refrained from invoking “Turkish [ethnic] nationalism,” so even ethnic Turks did not instantly champion Turkishness over alternative (local or religious) identities.

Beyond more direct measures including massive population exchanges with Greece, Ataturk responded to these challenges by secularizing as well as “nationalizing” state institutions and society through methods such as changing the alphabet (from Arabic alphabet to a uniquely Turkish interpretation of the Latin one) and ridding the Turkish language from “foreign” (mostly Arabic and Persian) words. In tandem with reforms in the education system, the Turkish state invested in creating a historical narrative for the nation’s origins. Most notably, building on existing mythologies, the “Turks” were projected as a unique, martial, and powerful race that originally hailed from Central Asia. In this telling, their glorious journey eventually brought them to Asia Minor by the turn of the 11th century, where they made their new home. Turks’ conversion to Islam was also re-imagined: Since pre-Islam shamanistic Turks were worshipping Tengri, the God of Sky, a deity who shared many similarities with Allah, conversion was rather natural.

Such Central Asia-centric narratives followed from both expediency and an intention to undermine the Ottoman legacy. Ataturk needed a unique and glorious “history” comparable to similar European nationalistic narratives of the age. The Ottomans’ glories, usually defined in terms of early military conquests, were gladly acknowledged, but the empire’s final centuries were either brushed off, or portrayed as an age of decay, prompted by the weakness of the sultans and an inability to adopt Western ways, if just for the sake of defending Turkey against the West.

Until Erdogan’s meteoric rise from 2002 onward, Turkish had nationalism evolved into different, if not necessarily incompatible, groups. A majority of the seculars, the CHP base in the present-day Turkish context, stuck to Ataturk’s original interpretation with one qualification: They underplayed, if not totally dismissed, the Central Asian segments of the narrative. A near-obsessive adulation of Ataturk and his ideas was the engine behind this brand of nationalism, accompanied with a sense of deep suspicion of Western countries’ intentions over Turkey.

Ultranationalists, who called themselves ulkucu (“idealists”), simply took the Central Asian narrative to its logical conclusion. In their view, the Turks were glorious in the distant past, and the only path to national salvation and regeneration was fully embracing Turkishness and the primacy of the Turkish state. The Central Asian myths were deeply emphasized, and the symbol of the movement was designated as the “Gray Wolf.” In the ultranationalist mythology, the Turks of the distant past were emancipated from self-induced imprisonment with the help of a female gray wolf, Asena, who guided the Turks to salvation and glory. The modern Gray Wolves, in this narrative, aimed to guide the Turkish nation back to the path of emancipation and glory.

In this context, ultranationalists praised Ataturk as a “basbug” (chief of the Turks) who saved the Turkish nation from disarray and colonization in the aftermath of the First World War. Paradoxically, ultranationalists also did not find it difficult to incorporate Islam and Ottoman heritage into their ideology. Islam was not a big challenge, since the MHP was a right-wing party and hosted many conservatives. Ottoman heritage, in turn, was also easily integrated, with an emphasis on the Turkishness of the Ottoman sultans and the military as well as the martial origins of the Empire.

The main challenge for the early ultranationalists was the question of ethnic minorities. While some ultranationalist groups revelled in barely-hidden racism, the MHP’s leaders tried to address this challenge by channeling their discourse to age old devletin bekasi (well-being of the Turkish state). In this interpretation, a Turkish citizen can hail from non-Turkic ethnic origins, but as long as s/he acts in ways that serve the well-being of the state, s/he is welcome to the fold. Conversely, anyone who acts in ways that may harm the Turkish state, regardless of ethnic origins, is a traitor.

Over the last couple of decades, the MHP’s electoral performance has varied greatly. Under Devlet Bahceli (who assumed leadership in 1997), the MHP received 18 percent of the votes in 1999, establishing itself as a member of the governing coalition. However, in the snap elections in 2002, MHP was down to roughly 8 percent and, failing to clear the 10 percent barrier (a requirement for a party to be represented in the parliament), was left with no MPs. Ironically, it was Bahceli who made the call for snap elections. The elections allowed the AKP to control two-thirds of the parliament with only one-third of the votes, and near-ended Bahceli’s political career.

The rise of Erdogan changed the political discourse over nationalism. It is now commonly accepted that Erdogan’s AKP was rooting for a pan-Ottoman ideal, usually referred to as neo-Ottomanism. Most analyses on the concept have focused on the implications of neo-Ottomanism for Turkish foreign policy. However, Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism also came with a domestic component. For Erdogan, the secularizing/nationalizing regime was bankrupt, and, as an AKP member of parliament highlighted, a “90 years long time-out” from the Ottoman greatness. Following the Ottoman footsteps, which were built on undermining ethnic nationalism and organizing the society in terms of religious principles, Erdogan directly attacked the original interpretation of Turkish nationalism, even using the term “nationalist” as a barely-hidden insult.

Such departure from past interpretations of nationalism also allowed Erdogan to push forward the so-called “solution process” in 2013, which entailed the policy of simultaneously negotiating with the PKK through the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and granting unprecedented, if still limited, cultural rights to Kurdish citizens of Turkey. Such departure from the original interpretation of Turkish nationalism prompted many CHP supporters to accuse Erdogan of betraying the nation. The harshest criticism came from Bahceli, who went as far as to declare that Erdogan posed a threat to the Turkish nation as much as the PKK did.

With hindsight, we can conclude that a deep under-current was sweeping through Turkish political discourse, culminating in Erdogan’s decision to negotiate with the PKK: Ultranationalism was gaining ground as a cultural movement, especially among the youth. These new ultranationalists, to a large extent, are very similar to the old ones: they share an incorruptible adulation for Ataturk, are more amenable to Islam than the traditional CHP base, and consider threats to “national security” their biggest political motivator. What separates the new ultranationalism from the old is that it is not seen, especially by the youth, as a marginal, inflexible, and archaic doctrine. Especially the rise of IYI Party, whose leader Meral Aksener is sometimes portrayed as a modern day Asena, speak to this trend.

In the past, the ultranationalists could be caricatured as a group of unidimensional “tough guys,” relics of the distant past and distinguished by their ulkucu mustaches. Present-day ultranationalists cannot be confined to these caricatures, but hail from all walks of life, including conservatives and ultra-secular urbanites.

Ultranationalism is becoming the new cool. More importantly, the rise of the IYI Party, with its more modern image, extends the reach of ultranationalism: If you prefer “old school,” you can vote for the old guard epitomized by Bahceli, and if you prefer a more up-to-date interpretation, you can vote for the modern-day Asena, Aksener. While they may not see eye-to-eye on individual issues, both Bahceli and Aksener hail from — and speak to — a similar ideological current.

Of course, some might argue that IYI is best defined as a center-right party, not ultranationalist. Two facts remain. First, being a center-right party — in the Turkish context where left-right spectrum does not follow the Western interpretation — is perfectly compatible with ultranationalism. Second, Aksener’s choice for IYI, which means “good,” as a name for her party has an ulterior reason: “IYI” is a specific reference to Turks’ Central Asian origins. IYI is in fact a non-alphabetical symbol for the Kayi tribe of the Oghuz Turks (from where the Ottomans originated), standing not for letters I-Y-I, but a bow between two arrows. Put differently, the name of the party itself reads like a secret handshake among ultranationalists.

So, how can we explain this new under-current? There are at least three explanations. First, especially for the youth, neither the CHP nor the AKP can still easily offer an identity that they can associate with. The increasing popularity of the MHP and HDP among the youth, not to mention the IYI Party’s electoral performance, speak to this trend. As Soner Cagaptay highlights, Turkey’s growing young population, who grew up under the AKP without knowing any other alternative, are bound to begin exploring alternative sources of identity.

The second factor that contributed to the rise of ultranationalism follows from the changing trends in internal and external security environment. Internally, Turkey has witnessed numerous terrorist attacks from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL). The failed coup attempt of July 2016 contributed to this sense of threat at the national scale. The influx of 3.5 million Syrian refugees to Turkey, in turn, has also been gradually frustrating many Turks, who may turn to more nationalist visions as a reaction.

Furthermore, the Erdogan-propelled “solution process” between 2013 and 2015, and its collapse contributed to the sense of threat, in different ways. How the collapse of the process affected ultranationalism is straightforward: The fighting between Turkish security forces and the PKK flared up, even spreading to urban areas for the first time since the conflict began during early 1980s. In a state of war, it is not surprising for many voters to turn to nationalistic discourses. What is less discussed are the ways in which the solution process itself also enraged the ultranationalists, and might have even made “ultras” out of middle-of-the-way nationalists.

The results of June and November elections in 2015 speak to this trend. In June 2015, while the solution process was still on the table, the AKP suffered a major setback, drifting to forty percent from its fifty percent in the 2011 elections. The AKP’s setback is usually attributed to the HDP’s success. While the HDP’s success can explain the AKP losing its majority in parliament, it does not solely explain how the AKP ended up losing ten percent of its vote share. A complementary explanation is that ultranationalist voters were punishing the AKP for the solution process. Both the AKP’s and the MHP’s electoral performances in the 2015 elections provide partial support for this claim. In June 2015, MHP’s increased its representation from 13 percent in 2011 to 16 percent, and most of the 3-percent increase likely came from the AKP. After June 2015 elections, the AKP adopted a no-holds-barred ultranationalist turn with an anti-PKK emphasis and rose back to roughly 50 percent in November.

All by itself, the AKP’s 10 percent rollback reveals little about the role of ultranationalist votes. However, in the same elections, the MHP fell from 16 percent to 11 percent: it is likely that the AKP attracted a substantial proportion of the 5 percent that the MHP lost, from those who voted in favor of Erdogan’s newfound ultranationalism. Perhaps, the writing was on the wall as early as November 2015: Ultranationalism had become a force to be reckoned with in the ballot box. If so, as Turkey watchers, we were staring at the wrong walls.

The third factor that eventually catalyzed the rise of ultranationalism as a game-changer in Turkish politics was Erdogan, who empowered ultranationalism with the full control of state institutions and media from 2015 onward. Erdogan’s ultranationalist turn during the summer of 2015 was initially interpreted as one of his most Machiavellian achievements. However, as highlighted above, Erdogan built his combative discourse in domestic politics on anti-nationalism between 2002 and 2015. Recall that ultranationalism is not an ideological current intrinsically compatible with Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism-inspired Islamism. Faced with an electoral defeat in June 2015, and a threat emanating from the meteoric rise of PKK’s sibling YPG in Syria, Erdogan’s ultranationalism is best seen as a choice of necessity, or even desperation.

It is too early to conclude that the ideational tiger – ultranationalism – he empowered will eventually devour Erdogan’s in the long run, as was the case for one of his personal heroes, Sultan Abdulhamit. However, the results of the June 2018 elections suggest that, just like his icon Abdulhamit, Erdogan might have set in motion a series of events that are contributing to the rise of an ideological under-current which he cannot control all by himself.

Erdogan’s Choice

The June 2015 elections were a massive blow to Erdogan. At the same time, he had to address a burning problem in Syria: The PKK’s sibling organization in northern Syria, backed by the United States in the fight against ISIL, was increasing its regional influence and territorial control. Erdogan responded by a radical turn to ultranationalism, a move accompanied with a ruthless military campaign against the PKK. Erdogan’s version of ultranationalism, to be precise, is not identical to the traditional or the “new” ultranationalisms. It can be best described as “religious [ultra]nationalism,” where Islamist motives and references are prioritized, with a clear adulation of the Ottoman past. The religious component of Erdogan’s ultranationalism peaked in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016, where nationalist narratives were heavily channeled through Islamic references.

The differences between Erdogan’s version of ultranationalism and that of the MHP/IYI can be illustrated by examining Turkey’s wildly popular TV drama industry. Erdogan’s ultranationalism, for example, is clearly visible in two popular TV series, both of which hail from state channel TRT. Dirilis (Resurrection) is about the founding days of the Ottoman Empire, and focuses on Ertugrul Ghazi — the father of Osman Ghazi, after whom the empire was named — as the key protagonist. Turkic mythology and Central Asian references are heavily invoked, but through the prism of Islamic rhetoric. A second popular show is Payitaht (The Crown), a historical re-imagining of Erdogan’s hero, Sultan Abdulhamit. In the series, the Ottoman strongman (who came to power in 1876 with the promise of a parliament, which he suspended two years later) outsmarts his foreign and domestic opponents by drawing on his incorruptible faith, title as the Caliph, and uncanny mastery of power politics.

MHP/IYI ultranationalism, in turn, can be observed through the lenses of two “martial” TV shows, the production of which would have been impossible before Erdogan made his ultranationalist turn (Erdogan would likely have slammed them as “racist,” say, in 2013 or before). “Savasci” (“Warrior”) tells the story of a special operations team in the Turkish military. There are mild references to religion, and the emphasis is on Central Asian origins, Turcomans in Syria, Iraq and beyond, and most notably, Ataturk. Almost all the names of the characters are direct references to Central Asian Turkic mythology. At the edge of the spectrum, there is “Boru” (“The Wolf”), a show about police special operations forces which, like “Savasci,” fight the PKK and ISIL. Boru jettisons religious references all together, and is tongue-in-cheek about symbolic references: the main female character is named Asena, and another character, during a torture-induced interrogation scene that would give the American TV show “24’s” Jack Bauer a run for his money, goes to lengths to explain that his name, Kemal, comes from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At first glance, Erdogan’s vision may be seen as a rival to that of the MHP/IYI. In the ever-fungible discursive world of ultranationalism, however, such visions are not necessarily rivals, and may in fact be “additive”: While an Islamicized interpretation of Ottoman origins or the re-imagining of Abdulhamit as an enlightened “world leader” may offend the CHP base’s sensitivities, the same is not necessarily true for traditional and new ultranationalists: Their version was never incompatible with Islam and, more importantly, now Erdogan is making their propaganda for them, or — at the very least — enabling it.

Add to the mix the recent successes of the Turkish military against the YPG and ISIL in Syria, and the PKK in Turkey as well as Iraq. The relevant policies are further militarizing the society, with constant references to victories, martyrs, selfless heroism for the sake of the nation, and threats to national security, which are the bread and butter of ultranationalists. Erdogan is a newcomer to this new discursive arena, which, for decades, was dominated by none other than Devlet Bahceli.

Enter the Lone Gray Wolf: Bahceli’s Long Game

Bahceli has never been a popular figure in the eyes of Turkey watchers, attracting little analytical attention. After siding with Erdogan in 2015, he became even less popular, and an object of disdain as well as ridicule. His success in the recent June elections left Turkey watchers scratching their heads, while at the same time motivating some in Turkey to consider a “theory,” which was likely intended to be satire, long in circulation in Turkish social media: Perhaps Devlet Bahceli was a Machiavellian wolf in an incompetent wolf’s skin (or, “Bahchiavelli,” as some in social media refer to him) and has been following a grand strategy that will eventually bring Erdogan down, and ultranationalists to power.

Little is known about Bahceli, including his private life (or, whether he has ever had one). From what we know, he has a peculiar first name (which literally means “The State”) and was a professor of economics before switching to politics. Therefore, any strong claim about his strategic acumen is bound to be speculative. However, past evidence suggests that Bahceli is no master strategist. Recall that Bahceli’s abrupt decision to call for snap elections in 2002 marginalized the MHP and nearly ended his political career, paving the way for the rise of the AKP who initially upheld positions antithetical to what Bahceli stood for. However, with hindsight, it is safe to say that Bahceli’s decision to ally with Erdogan in 2015 was strategic. Bahceli likely calculated that siding with Erdogan would eventually allow the MHP to speak closer to the ears of conservative ultranationalists within the AKP and beyond. Furthermore, Bahceli might have considered that the MHP-AKP coalition would alienate some Kurdish voters from the AKP.

In all likelihood, Bahceli came on top in June elections, which he calls a “historic victory.” To be precise, the AKP needs only six MPs from other parties to secure its majority in parliament, which would not be a difficult feat. However, the real leverage Bahceli has over Erdogan cannot be reduced to the number of parliamentary seats that AKP needs for a majority. Bahceli’s electoral success showed Erdogan two things. First, siding with ultranationalists pays off well in the short term. Second, paradoxically, as the June elections established, Erdogan’s political prospects increasingly depend on ultranationalist voters, a dynamic that renders him hostage to the ultranationalist under-current where Bahceli excels.

Note that Bahceli’s main concern is not necessarily democracy, or “balancing” what can be called Erdoganocracy. His priority is dictated by his ultranationalist ideology: the well-being of the Turkish state, as he interprets it. Arguably, Bahceli would prefer an Erdogan who keeps up with the ultranationalist agenda with respect to the Kurdish Question over a coalition government that would include, or be backed by, the HDP. If Erdogan deviates from the agenda, Bahceli, as he made very clear in a statement right before the elections, will turn against Erdogan, with a vengeance.

In such a scenario, Bahceli hit where he can do the most damage, painting Erdogan as a hypocritical traitor to the nation in the eyes of the president’s own base, who are being served the ultranationalistic Kool-Aid for the past three years. Erdogan can still make a radical turn, say, by initiating a second peace process with the PKK. However, he now knows, more than ever, such a turn may come at a cost, with his own base flocking to the ultranationalist camp in large numbers.

The Road Ahead

The rise of ultranationalism in Turkey will have three consequences in the long term. First, Turkey will likely continue its anti-PKK/YPG campaign in the region. As highlighted above, Erdogan may be tempted to outmaneuver Bahceli by coming to terms with HDP to negotiate a second solution process. However, his reliance on, and vulnerability to, the ultranationalist under-current will limit his course of action for a simple reason: Bahceli will be on the lookout, waiting to exploit any significant deviation from the existing hawkish anti-PKK posture. Erdogan has mastered not democracy as some claim, but the dog-eat-dog Realpolitik that drives Turkish politics. But this time, he will have to play on a field where he is a late-comer, and he might have already gone too deep with his ultranationalistic discourses to make yet another radical turn.

Second, the rise of ultranationalism does not necessarily mean that Turkey’s relationship with the West will deteriorate. Instead, relations with the West (especially the United States)  will be increasingly “conditional” on how the United States and European countries approach the Turkey-YPG conflict among other issues. It is true that Bahceli’s foreign policy posture entails a heavy suspicion of Western powers, and that he openly declared that Turkey could leave NATO. However, such a posture is not specific to Bahceli: From leftists to ultranationalists, moderate secularists to Islamists, almost all political factions share the same understanding about “foreign powers,” which reveals itself best in the half a century old anti-Americanism as well as anti-NATO sentiment embedded in all walks of life in Turkish society.

Bahceli’s foreign policy posture is also far more pragmatic and less adventurous than that of Erdogan. For example, there is no evidence that Bahceli harbors “Pan-Turkic” illusions, if not sympathies, beyond Turkish borders comparable to the neo-Ottomanist dreams that drove AKP’s foreign policy for a long time. Bahceli’s priority is what he would consider the primary national security interests of the Turkish Republic, which for him are under serious threat from within (Bahceli staunchly opposes any federal arrangement) and from outside (especially Syria) in the form of the Kurdish question. With this background, it is difficult to define Bahceli as pro- or anti-American, or pro- or anti-Russian. It is more fitting to see him as pro-unitary-Turkey, and against anyone whom he believes could threaten that ideal. In this context, Bahceli’s unrelenting position will limit the “bargaining space” between Ankara and the Washington over the YPG and PKK: Bahceli will not budge, and will strike at Erdogan the moment the Turkish president budges.

The third long-term consequence of rising ultranationalism in Turkey is that it will shape Turkish political discourse in the foreseeable future, and as the June elections clearly displayed, sometimes in ways that would difficult to predict. As Turkey watchers, we have failed to engage what the phenomenon was, and how it might affect Turkish politics. It is high time we take ultranationalism seriously and move beyond simplistic interpretations that portray ultranationalists as unidimensional caricatures or throwbacks. Ultranationalists themselves have most certainly moved well beyond such interpretations. The rest of us just need to catch up.


Burak Kadercan is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Photo by Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons