Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since 2002. Although the recent election suggests it will remain unchallenged as the country’s ruling party, it nonetheless faces an uncertain future. Its extraordinary congress that begins on Oct. 7 is supposed to chart a course that ensures victory in the upcoming local elections in 2024.
Over the past two decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has empowered Turkey’s religious conservatives. But conservatism is now being eclipsed by a new nationalism. Nationalism, always a powerful force in Turkish politics, is fed by a heightened sense of national insecurity in a geopolitically volatile environment. But this fraught context simultaneously offers opportunities for projecting power, which in turn stimulates an assertive nationalism. Meanwhile, the growth of a military-industrial sector that is increasingly important in strategic and economic terms is reconfiguring the ideological superstructure, with nationalism replacing conservatism as the hegemonic force.
Erdogan’s recent campaign shows he is trying to ride this wave, but the AKP’s future prospects will be determined by the extent to which the party succeeds in uniting secular and religious nationalists who, according to polls, together constitute as many as 75 percent of voters.
In the longer term, to stay in power, Turkey’s ruling party must broaden its appeal. The conservative AKP lost support in the election to parliament in May, dropping to 35. 6 percent, from 42. 6 percent in 2018. Crucially, Erdogan, who is also the AKP leader and was comfortably reelected, has said that “2023 is the last time I ask for the support of the nation,” and that he will “pass the sacred banner on to the youth” after the 2023 election–which raises the question of who his successor might be.
Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, the chairman of the board and chief technology officer of the Turkish aerospace group Baykar and the producer of the famous drones and unmanned aircraft that bear his name, may be best placed to fulfill that mission. Turkey’s military-technological achievements have catapulted Bayraktar to public prominence, and he actively propagates a popular form of techno-nationalism that transcends the secular-religious divide.
On Sept. 1, Bayraktar for the first time indicated that he’s considering entering politics. “My ambition was never to enter politics or to become president, but to pioneer the Turkish aerospace industry. But if the struggle for national technology so requires, I will of course not be intimidated [from seeking office] and turn back,” he stated in an interview with Turkish media.
In yet another statement on Sept. 28, he reiterated his determination, if need be, to enter politics, saying, “If attempts are made by people with foreign agendas to raise hurdles in the way of Turkey’s drive for independence in military technology, I’m ready for all kinds of struggle.” In a sign that the U.S. government recognizes that Bayraktar may indeed be destined for high office, Bayraktar was invited on board the USS Gerald R. Ford during the U.S.-Turkish joint naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean in late August, accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake.
Bayraktar is at the forefront of a Turkish success story. Two decades ago, Turkey prided itself on exporting refrigerators and television sets. Today, it has made important strides toward self-sufficiency in military technology and hardware. Its expansive defense sector has grown exponentially in 20 years. Three thousand defense companies employ 80,000 workers and engineers. Export earnings so far in 2023 amount to $2. 4 billion and are expected to reach $6 billion by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s arms imports dropped 49 percent in the period from 2018 to 2022 compared to 2013 to 2017, a consequence of Turkish self-sufficiency in weapons. Another measure of the development of domestic defense production is the decrease of foreign input–parts and components–from 80 percent two decades ago to 20 percent today.
In 2002, Ankara invested $5. 5 billion in military industrial projects; the total today has jumped to $90 billion. Turkish arms exports increased more than 36 percent in 2022 compared to 2021, making Turkey the 12th largest arms exporter globally, while Turkey ranks among the top five drone exporters globally. The Bayraktar drones have made a decisive difference on battlefields from Ukraine to Ethiopia, Libya, and Syria, as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh–and they have become a source of national pride.
Teknofest, an aviation, aerospace, and technology festival arranged since 2018 by the Turkish Technology Team Foundation (of which Bayraktar is the founder and chairman of the board) in close cooperation with the military and the government attests to the growing popular appeal of techno-nationalism. Teknofest in Istanbul between April 27 and May 1 this year drew 2. 5 million visitors in person, while Teknofest in Ankara at the beginning of September drew close to 1 million visitors, with queues reaching hundreds of meters in the scorching sun.
Erdogan ascended to power as a liberal-conservative reformer in a very different global context, speaking for a Turkish business class that wanted to enjoy the benefits of globalization; his move to the nationalist right during the last decade is ultimately a reflection of interconnected changes in Turkey’s economic base and the geopolitical environment.
It was not a coincidence that the Turkish presidential election in May this year turned into a contest between two versions of nationalism. The Kurdish challenge and the presence of an estimated 4 million Syrian refugees have precipitated a further move among the electorate to the nationalist right. The social democratic opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu sought to exploit this shift by appealing to xenophobia, vowing to expel Syrian refugees. To his credit, Erdogan did not attempt to score points by turning the widely unpopular Syrian refugees into scapegoats.
Kilicdaroglu did himself no favors by declaring that he would invite a U.S. company to set up an aviation and space center in Istanbul. His ally Ali Babacan, the leader of the right-wing Democracy and Progress Party, appeared even more insensitive to the prevailing national mood when he complained that the domestic drone production had become a “sacred, untouchable project” and vowed that if it won the opposition was going to “touch it,” that state support to the Baykar Group would be withheld.
It was Erdogan’s promotion of national grandeur and emphasis on Turkey’s standing in the world and its military-industrial achievements that were in tune with the electorate. Erdogan, who since 2015 has ruled in alliance with the far-right and historically secular Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was supported by enough secular nationalists to win.
Yet, although he has tried, Erdogan cannot fully bring the ideological amalgamation of conservative and secular nationalism to its fruition. He has spent too many years of his career cultivating secular-religious divisions to be trusted by the majority of the secular nationalists.
By contrast, Bayraktar’s techno-nationalism has no religious overtones, and it appeals to a secular nationalist constituency that shares the religious nationalists’ attachment to national grandeur, similarly endorses power projection abroad, and takes pride in Turkish military-industrial achievements. This Turkish nationalism is moreover in tune with Western interests. The sale of Bayraktar drones to the countries in Central Asia–and the agreement between Turkey and Kazakhstan in 2022 to co-produce drones in Kazakhstan–is helping to offset the influence of Russia in that region.
Bayraktar has said that he was highly critical of U.S. foreign policy in his youth and “obsessed with Noam Chomsky,” but he has not clothed his vision of national grandeur in the language of the aggrieved and virulently anti-Western variants of Turkish nationalism that many in both opposition and regime circles espouse. The Turkish Islamist movement, from which the AKP sprang, has historically been anti-Western, but anti-Western Turkish nationalism has an even stronger grip on the left, which, since the founding of the Turkish republic, has continued to see the West as an imperialist enemy. However, the Iraq War and, more recently, U.S. support to the Kurds in Syria have triggered anti-Americanism among leading representatives of the secular right as well, with Devlet Bahceli, the MHP leader, asking “is the U.S. a friend or a foe?” and accusing the U.S. of having instigated coups in Turkey since the Cold War
The former Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, a secular right-wing nationalist with close ties to Bahceli, who was removed from the cabinet after Erdogan’s reelection this May but who remains widely popular and is known to be harboring unrealistic presidential ambitions, is even more virulent in his anti-Americanism. Soylu is an ardent critic of the United States, which he has openly blamed for the 2016 coup attempt. As interior minister, Soylu regularly railed against the United States, telling the U.S. ambassador in February of this year to take his “dirty hands off Turkey.”
Soylu’s is an aggrieved nationalism that is informed by a sense of insecurity. By contrast, Bayraktar’s techno-nationalism is informed by self-confidence. While Turkish insecurity fosters anti-Americanism, confidence in Turkey’s military-industrial capabilities favors a relaxed attitude to American power. If anything, the story of Bayraktar is a case in point that Turkish military power projection aligns with and indeed serves Western and U.S. interests.
Ukraine’s armed forces have used the Bayraktar TB2 drone to great effect against Russian troops, and the Bayraktar drones early on became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Baykar Technologies has also on several occasions donated drones to the Ukrainian military. Bayraktar, who has stated that “we have a moral obligation to help Ukraine,” was awarded the State Order of Merit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2022. So was Haluk Bayraktar, the CEO of Baykar Technologies and Selcuk’s older brother, in 2020. He said that he is proud that technology developed by their company is supporting Ukraine’s struggle for its independence and opined that Ukraine is “fighting for a free world.”
Bayraktar represents the return of a political ideology that served the Turkish right formidably during the Cold War: a combination of free enterprise, nationalism, and commitment to the defense of the free world. Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, Suleyman Demirel in the 1960s and 1970s, and Turgut Ozal in the 1980s were pro-Western, conservative leaders who held forth visions of national development and who appealed to both secular and religious voters.
But the historical record also reveals the deficiencies of Turkish Cold War conservatism. It fatefully ignored social and economic injustices and answered the demands of the working class with repression. The result was a violent class conflict that destabilized Turkey during the 1970s. Economic inequality has similarly grown during the AKP’s two decades in power. While businesses have profited handsomely from government policies, the working class–the majority–certainly hasn’t.
Whomever Erdogan picks as his successor will have little reason to worry about the challenge of the opposition. Turkey’s opposition is in disarray after its defeat in the presidential and parliamentary elections and offers no ideological alternative. It is unlikely that it will be able to reassemble and present a united front in the upcoming local elections in March 2024.
Meral Aksener, the leader of the nationalist Good Party, the second biggest party in the defunct opposition alliance, has declared that her party is not going to endorse the reelection of the opposition mayors in Istanbul and Ankara, both members of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as she maintains that the election debacle proved that it is impossible to cooperate with the CHP. Still, the polls put incumbent Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who covets the presidency, as the victor.
According to some polls, if he were to run, Selcuk Bayraktar does the best among presumptive AKP candidates in Istanbul, but he has not given any indication that he is interested in launching a political career at the municipal level. Bayraktar has emphasized that it is the “struggle for the realization of the move for national technology,” an “ideal” for which he will “fight to the end,” that would motivate him to enter politics–a sign that he has his eyes set on the national level.
In fact, with his strong standing among the public, Bayraktar does not need to start at the ground level and move up, as Erdogan did. It is his accomplishments so far that make him a candidate for the highest office. Municipal politics, indeed, even being party leader of the AKP while Erdogan is still president, would risk wearing him out prematurely. But ultimately, techno-nationalism alone will not suffice to motivate a majority of the Turkish electorate.
The elections to parliament earlier this year showed that the impoverishment of the working class and the growth of inequality are providing fertile ground for a radical contestation of the economic order. While Turkey’s mainstream left, the CHP, also embraces neoliberal economics and was accordingly unable to win over the working class, the Islamist New Welfare Party struck a chord among working-class voters with its criticism of the injustices of capitalism and calls for an Islamic “just order”–a slogan associated with the Welfare Party of the 1980s and 1990s, which counted Erdogan as a member and was a precursor to the AKP. Scoring their best result in many years, the unreformed Islamists won 1. 5 million votes. That is a warning to the Turkish ruling elite that it can ill afford to leave social and economic inequalities unchecked.
Uniquely among the Turkish elite, Selcuk Bayraktar personifies national ambitions that excite and unite religious and secular constituencies alike–but to win at a national level, he would have to forge an inclusive vision in socioeconomic terms.
With the working classes sliding into poverty, the offer of national grandeur is doomed to be insufficient. Erdogan’s heir apparent will need to offer social nationalism, pairing his techno-nationalism with a reassurance that its material benefits will be shared by the masses.
That would come naturally for Bayraktar, whose family is rooted in the popular classes. Bayraktar’s father hailed from Istanbul’s working class–he was the son of a fisherman–but in 1985 started what for many years remained a small auto-parts company. The community work of the Bayraktar family–including educational and medical charities–demonstrates a sense of solidarity with the less fortunate in society that, if translated into a political program, will increase the likelihood that Selcuk Bayraktar will become Turkey’s next leader.
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