Is there a center-right ghost haunting Turkey? A tired ghost that wanders through imaginary halls… A domesticated, well-behaved ghost…
In the English Wikipedia’s list of “centrist parties,” alongside Turkey’s IYIP and DEVA, they’ve included the Liberal Democratic Party… and the Independent Turkey Party (“work, bread, Haydar Baş”)! A sign of the blurring of the definitions of center and center-right or perhaps a sign of a disrupted transmission.
As you know, there has been a proliferation of new center-right party initiatives in recent times—or, using the well-worn phrase, the quest for “a new formation on the center-right” that years couldn’t wear out. It’s said that Yavuz Ağıralioğlu, who parted ways with IYIP, will form a new party in that atmosphere. There are other initiatives as well. DEVA is trying to maintain its position, but it’s rather feeble. IYIP, beyond creating a bouquet of “old” center-right cadres and putting them on the table, hasn’t made much progress in building a new center-right with a nationalist-conservative ferment.
Those who long for an “alternative” in the center-right believe that only through such a “formation” can the AKP government be defeated in Turkey. At the very least, in terms of repairing democracy, the presence of a strong center-right would be beneficial…
I wrote about the crisis of the center-right in Turkey about three years ago. This crisis is not unique to Turkey; it’s global. We can better understand it if we think of it as a global issue, as a phenomenon of our times.
The recent work of political scientist Thomas Biebricher, who gained recognition with his book “Neoliberalism’s Political Theory” in 2019, titled “Mitte/Rechts” (Center/Right), is a valuable source in this regard. Biebricher notes that most of the 25 Christian Democratic parties in Europe have merged into the pool of small parties, and 10 of them did not exceed 5% in the last elections. He shows that where the center-right has not become marginalized, it has migrated inward, effectively becoming far-right through mutations. He examines examples such as Italy, which he sees as a pioneering model of this transformation, as well as Britain and France. He also takes a side glance at Germany. Yes, it’s a Europe-centric study. Nevertheless, summarizing his findings will help stimulate thinking on the subject.
Biebricher describes the ideological content of the center-right as moderate conservatism. Or its synonym, liberal conservatism—which, in my opinion, is an accurate description (they call it paleo-conservatism in Anglo-Saxon literature; Stone Age conservatism—so ancient!).
According to Biebricher, a strong center-right is one of the founding elements of a liberal democratic regime. After all, the center-right didn’t just consent to the welfare state; it took direct initiative in its establishment. Of course, this was the requirement of the Cold War and anti-communism. To quote Demirel’s concise phrase in international power, it was a matter of “not giving the working classes anything to lose except their chains”…
The end of the Cold War disrupted the center-right’s coordinate system. Adapting more or less willingly to the politics of neoliberalism, which dismantled the welfare state and deregulated, it dug its own grave. The decline of the center-right is not only seen by Biebricher but also by the entire political science as contributing to the erosion of the middle class. (At this historical moment, you can add the thesis that the middle class “actually doesn’t exist” to the thesis that the center-right “actually doesn’t exist!”)
Biebricher defines the emerging right that replaces the center-right as radical right, illiberal conservatism, and right-wing populism. In the transformation that leads to the center-right’s place being taken by the radical right, he distinguishes five factors: party structure, personalization, enemy images, Europe, and the culture war.
Changes in party structure and personalization factors are intertwined. The shift towards parties being heavily centered around leaders, the diminishing importance of cadres, delegates, party environment, and all intermediary levels, along with the erosion of “moderation” mechanisms alongside democratic conventions. This change encouraged the dominance of figures who effectively use the media in politics, are vociferous, and have a “I’ll punch the table when it’s mentioned” attitude.
The old center-right’s enemy image was communism. As the representative of moderation against the radicalism, extremism, and fanaticism of communism. With the end of the Cold War, the center-right, having won, became complacent, thinking that there was no longer a need for enemy politics. In contrast, the new (radical, populist) right skillfully advanced, excelling in identifying new enemies and defining them. It provided fresh fuel to existing enemy images and even invented new ones if necessary. (In Turkey, the Kurdish issue is a four-lane level crossing in the transition from the center-right to the radical right—in other words, it’s the “Kurdish card.”) The “Europe” that the radical right in Europe has embraced as a special enemy image (European Union technocracy, “Brussels”) is also effective in Turkey. (Comparing these motifs could be interesting.)
In the age of neoliberalism, depoliticizing the economy, allowing politics to be entirely dominated by “markets,” and rendering the center-right uncertain about where to place its hand became important factors. According to Biebricher, the radical right triumphed by reviving the narrow space of politics with its mastery of culture wars or by substituting culture wars for economics. Moreover, this was a cost-effective task. Unlike the center-right, which had long made fun of being “neither meat nor chicken” (Erbakan used to call them “colorless”), the radical right excelled at using wholesale, colorless, polarizing culture war technology, which was precisely what the radical right was good at, as opposed to the center-right’s/liberal conservatism’s ethos based on self-discipline, diligence, and prudence.
It should not be forgotten: The old and new lines of the right, which we describe as polar opposites, liberal conservatism and populist-radical right, do not stand completely still in discrete compartments. There is fluidity and tension.
Let’s emphasize a point that Biebricher occasionally makes in his study: The center-right can only exist if it is reconstructed. (For those who believe that the revival of the center-right is necessary – is there such a need, that’s a separate discussion.) The phrase “gap in the center-right” somewhat evokes a sinkhole; a sinkhole is a dangerous hole formed by the withdrawal of underground waters, greeting Emin Alper’s “Dry Days.” There isn’t a “natural” gap waiting to be filled in the center-right; there is only the collapse of sinkholes, if anything.
 I’ll refer to Kemal Can’s articles on this topic: https://medyascope.tv/2023/07/02/kemal-can-yazdi-mustakil-siyaset-ve-mustesna-siyasetciler/; https://medyascope.tv/2023/06/25/kemal-can-yazdi-azinlik-cogunluk-mahalle-aritmetigi-ve-merkez/
 The German original, “Mitte/Rechts,” was published by Suhrkamp in April.
*Tanıl Bora was born in 1963 in Ankara. He graduated from Istanbul Boys’ High School, then Ankara University Political Science Faculty. He was a journalist at Yeni Gündem, a weekly news journal, in between 1984-88. He has been the research / reading editor in İletişim Publishing since 1988. In between 1993 and 2014, he was the editorial director in Toplum & Bilim Journal, a social science journal published every three months. In 2012, he became the editorial coordinator of Birikim, a monthly socialist culture journal for which he was writing articles since 1989.
In between 2002 and 2017, he gave masters and PhD level lectures on History of Political Thought in Turkey in Ankara University Political Science Faculty. His field of study and interest is mainly political thought in Turkey. Some of his books published on the issue as follows: Devlet Ocak Dergâh – 1980’lerde Ülkücü Hareket (together with Kemal Can, 1991), Milliyetçiliğin Kara Baharı (1995), Türk Sağının Üç Hali (1998), Devlet ve Kuzgun – 1990’lardan 2000’lere MHP,2004), Medeniyet Kaybı- Milliyetçilik ve Faşizm Üzerine Yazılar (2006), Sol, Sinizm, Pragmatizm, 2010), Cereyanlar – Türkiye’de Siyasi İdeolojiler, 2017).
He translated more than twenty books from prominent authors like Karl Karx, Jürgen Habermas, Franz Kafka, Ernst Bloch, Wilhelm Schmid.
As the founder member of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, he is involved in the organization committee of “Human Rights Movement Conference of Turkey” that has been organized for fifteen years. He has been a board member of History Foundation since 2017.
This article was first published in Birikim Magazine on August 9, 2023 and translated into English bu Politurco.