As the campaigns for general elections on July 22 begin in earnest, strategies in Turkey are following both the classic ad-and-promises pattern of European or American politics as well as the homegrown technique of appeals to spiritual values.

In Turkey, that means special appeals to so-called “tarikat”, sometimes translated as “sects,” sometimes as “orders.”

Such orders, although formally forbidden by the constitution, have always been influential in Turkish politics. Some religious orders have direct links to certain political parties; others shift according to the political climate.

There are two groups of religious orders or sects, according to Metin Heper, a professor from Bilkent University, who discussed the sensitive but very real issue with the Turkish Daily News.

“The first group’s social, private or work lives are definitely dominated by the rules of religion while the second group differs with their preferences of secularism in state affairs,” said Heper, a noted scholar who has studied the interplay between religion and politics in Turkey for more than three decades.

Heper said that as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seems more secular than the other conservative parties, it could well harvest the votes of the second group during the elections, while the first group is likely to prefer the Saadet (Happiness or Contentment) Party (SP).

Deputy leader of the True Path Party (DYP), Mahmut Nedim Bilgiç, speaking to the TDN, argued that the religious orders should not be directly related to politics, saying, “To avoid politicization of the orders/sects more freedom of religion should be provided.”

Will AKP lose the religious sects ?

It is well-known the AKP attracted most of the votes of the dominant religious orders or sects during the 2002 general elections. It is not yet clear whether this success will be repeated as the party has not been able to deliver on its promises on lifting the headscarf ban, nor has it been able lift restrictions on so-called “Imam-Hatip” high schools, essentially vocational schools established to train Islamic clergy. Neither has the party been able to fulfill promises to liberalize Koran courses in public and private education.

There is also a growing middle class among religious people who send their children abroad and increasingly look with disfavor on the anti-European Union parties like SP or Grand Unity Party (BBP).

“They would rather vote for the AKP” Çayir said.

Are sects harmful or not ?

AKP deputy of Adiyaman, Hüsrev Kutlu, said that being a member of a religious sect is an individual right and should be considered as an element that goes along with the freedom of religion.

“The religious orders are not harmful to Turkey,” Kutlu said. “The orders are based on humanity, so are the politics. It’s normal and you cannot prevent this intersection.”

He added that he has personal interest to Saidi Nursi, the founder of the Nursi Movement of one Turkey’s best-known “tarikat” or orders.

The demand increases for Alevi votes

The CHP, meanwhile, a social democrat and staunch secularist party, has started to seek the support of its traditional electorate group, the Alevites. However, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the AKP are also trying to enjoy some Alevi votes.

The Alevis, a large community in Turkey and Syria, is a distinct branch of Islam that is known for its centuries of liberal views; for example the group eschews formal worship in mosques and few of its women have ever been veiled, even in pre-Republican times. While many members of the group complain of second-class treatment by the Sunni-dominated religious affairs directorate, the members have long been supporters of secular rule and law and are known for building political alliances on the left.

Thus it is an interesting turn in Turkish politics that rightist and nationalist MHP has begun to pay attention to Tunceli, an Alevi populated city. An Alevi leader Timur Ulusoy, President of Haci Bektasi Veli Cultural Foundation, will run for elections under the MHP banner.

The main branch of Alevis, Bektasis are known in particular for supporting leftist political views and groups.

The distribution of religious votes among parties:

Amid the religious groups, Nur Movement is one of the biggest communities and separated into two main branches.

Mehmet Kutlular represents one of them called the “Nur” movement, which can be rendered as the movement for “Sacred Light.” the movements has links to the AKP but in the past has mainly supported the Truth Path Party (DYP)”. A big question mark will be the merger of the DYP with the Motherland or “ANAVATAN” party to create the new Democrat Party or DP. The new party’s success in maintaining those links of inherited support will define much of its success on July 22.

The other segment of the Nur Movement is known as “Fetullahçilar,” loyal to Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic prayer leader who lives in the United States. This group is generally known to support the AKP but its support is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Another group is the “Süleymancilar”, loosely aligned with the Ismali order known in the west as followers of the Agha Khan. This group usually decides on which party to vote at the very last minute. But observers say this time the group is expected to distribute its votes between the AKP and the DP.

Iskender Pasa, a group under the leadership of Nureddin Cosan, supports the BBP and the AKP.

What happened in previous elections ?

In the 1999 elections, the DYP received the support of Süleymancilar and established contacts with the Ismail Aga Community.

The biggest movement of Nurcular under the leadership of Gülen favored the Democratic Left Party (DSP) in the 1999 elections and the AKP in the 2002 elections. In both cases their support was critical in their emergence as the top vote-getting parties.

Yet another group, “Kadiriler”, a small moderate branch of religious groups, gave support its to the DYP in the 1990s.

The background of the Süleymancilar: The founder of the community is the grandson of Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan, Ahmet Arif Denizolgun. Denizolgun was Antalya Deputy of the DYP and became minister for transportation during the 55th Turkish Government. Mehmet Beyazit Denizolgun, Ahmet Arif Denizolgun’s brother, is one of the founders of the AKP and a member of the Parliament.

Menzilciler is known to have close relations with the MHP and BBP. But their votes were distributed between the BBP and the AKP in the elections in 2002.

Who will vote for whom ?

Religious sects, communities and orders have technically been forbidden by law since 1925 although they have become more assertive since the 1980s amid a mood of toleration that began under the late-President Turgut Özal. The result is that the members of these groups refrain from declaring their religious segment. Here are the TDN’s observations on “who will vote for whom” after a series of talks with the members of these groups who spoke on the condition of anonymity:

AKP: Iskender Pasa, Ismail Aga and Fetullahçilar would vote for AKP. Some of the Kutlular’s segment and a small number of Süleymancilar would also support AKP, while most of the Naksi’s will continue to vote for AKP.

DP: Süleymancilar and Nurcular are expected to support the DP and some of the Naksi’s under the leadership of Haydar Bas and some Nurcular under the leadership of Kutlular might vote for the DP.

BBP: The ones who are against the AKP from Iskender Paşa faction would vote for BBP.

CHP: Most of the Alevis.

MHP: A small segment of the Alevis and some from Nurcular.

SP: The most traditionalist voters allied with the so-called “Milli Görüş” or “National View” movement established by Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

Source: “Turkish Daily News,” Edition of May 28, 2007