Turkey takes nationalist turn

Nationalist Action Party, placing second in Sunday's elections,

The winds of nationalism blowing in Turkey recently have led an old ultrarightist party to emerge as the second-largest political force from Sunday's general elections. The results hold implications for the direction of Turkey's foreign policy, including a role as a regional power.

In a big surprise, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which has advocated a larger Turkish identity, received 18 percent of the votes. This gives it 130 seats in Parliament and puts it well ahead of the pro-Islamist Virtue Party. But topping both parties, as expected, was Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP).

Although the MHP has not taken an anti-Western stand, the party advocates a more independent and assertive policy "in line with Turkey's national interests," as its platform states.

Recognizing that Turkey is a crossroads between the East and West, the MHP wants Turkey to play a leadership role in Eurasia. The MHP hopes to capitalize on historic, cultural, and economic links from the Balkans to the Caucasus and Central Asia, which MHP leaders like to call "the Turkic world."

Political scientist Yilmaz Esmer, a professor at the Bosporus University in Istanbul, notes that a series of events in and around Turkey - from Kurdish violence to the fighting in Bosnia, Chechnya, and more recently Kosovo - has fueled a desire to see Turkey play the role of a regional power.

For many people in Turkey, where Islam plays a big role culturally, the Kosovo drama resonates because it involves Muslim Albanians. The MHP supports NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia and wants NATO to undertake even more, such as a land operation, in which the MHP believes Turkey should take a leading part.

As MHP supporters celebrated their election gains, in fact, some displayed the slogan "Kosovo, stand by, we are coming."

In another manifestation of the MHP's nationalist stance, the party is much cooler to the European Union. Many Turks were disillusioned by the EU's rebuff of Turkey's application for membership and have subsequently urged a more independent policy.

Yesterday MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said that Turkey's ties with the EU should be "reconsidered," adding, "The nationalists are disturbed by the idea of transferring some part of the national sovereignty to the EU due to its legal status.... Turkey has other alternatives and opportunities. Therefore it is not right to think only in terms of one dimension [EU]."

The MHP also takes a hard stand on Cyprus, saying that Turkey will never allow the divided region to become a Greek island.

How much these nationalistic objectives will be reflected in Turkey's foreign policy under a new government, shared by the MHP, remains to be seen. Foreign observers have been cautious. "The implementation of a party's declared policies and statements is seen only after it takes office," says a Western diplomat. "We had that experience with the Islamists a few years ago. And now we shall have a similar experience with the nationalists."

What is at stake is the process of democratization and human rights, issues on which the MHP maintains a tough attitude despite efforts to appear as a moderate party. For the MHP, a primary concern is to fight Kurdish separatism and Kurdish political aspirations in Turkey, and to preserve the national unity at any cost.

One of the first signs of a rise in Turkish nationalism has come at the funerals of servicemen and civilians killed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). An outburst of nationalism has taken place over the past few months as PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was booted out of Syria, later took refuge in Italy, eventually was captured in Kenya, and then was sent back to Turkey. Furthermore, the approach of Ocalan's trial and possible execution has stirred public opinion and sent waves of nationalistic fervor throughout the country.

Analysts see this nationalistic mood, particularly in the countryside and among youths, as the main reason for the MHP's electoral gains. "This is a backlash against Kurdish activism," says Dogu Ergil, a political-science professor at Ankara University.

The MHP was founded in the 1960s by Alparslan Turkes, a former Army officer who took part in the 1960 coup. In addition to having a strongly nationalist and anticommunist program, the Party had a paramilitary wing, the "Gray Wolves," which trained thousands of young men.

In recent years the MHP dissociated itself from violence, although it kept its ultra-nationalist line.

After Mr. Turkes's death, the party was taken over in 1997 by Mr. Bahceli, a moderate politician who has tried to give the MHP a new image.

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