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Turkey: Sizing Up the Impact of Sex on Politics

As Turkey’s June 12 parliamentary elections draw nearer, public attention is focusing on how a set of explicit videos involving politicians from Turkey’s third largest political party, the ultranationalist MHP, are influencing voting preferences.

A group claiming to be disaffected Nationalist Action Party (MHP) activists began posting the black-and-white hidden-camera footage of the tawdry encounters on the Internet a month ago. Apparently timed to undermine voter support for the opposition MHP, the tapes, which purport to feature a 16-year-old girl and a Russian prostitute, have prompted the resignation of 10 senior MHP members.

“I felt like a trainee boxer getting punched in the face again and again; that’s how shocked I was,” said Ibrahim Cakir, a 60-year-old Istanbul taxi driver and former MHP activist, referring to the sex tapes. “These things are not part of what we are.”

Cakir, who first became a MHP supporter while taking part in Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, is one of a growing number of erstwhile party loyalists who has transferred allegiance to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). He claimed that about 60 of his friends have done the same in the past two months.

The tapes are spurring debate about the MHP’s electoral prospects. In the 2007 elections, the party gained 14.3 percent of the vote, but it has struggled since then to maintain that level of support. Now, there is speculation that the party might not clear the 10-percent threshold for entrance into parliament. If that happened, the MHP’s seats in parliament would be redistributed, a development likely to benefit the AKP. It could even give the AKP a super majority in the legislature, allowing it to implement a plan to alter Turkey’s constitution.

The fall-off in support may be linked to more than just the sex tapes. Cakir, who first left the party in 2009, believes that the final straw for many people who have gone over to the AKP was the MHP’s selection of a suspect in an ongoing military coup-plot investigation as a candidate for parliament. “The [sex tape] scandal has just solidified their decision,” he explained.

Polling before and after the release of the tapes suggests MHP support now hovers at between 10 percent and 12 percent of voting-age adults. In one survey for the Akşam newspaper released on May 31, only 7 percent of MHP supporters among 2,315 respondents said the revelations had shaken their trust in the party.

Some analysts suggest that Turkey’s polarized political scene, coupled with suspicions over the motives behind the smear campaign, may dull the tapes’ impact. Many MHP supporters, including the leadership, assert the AKP -- the scandal’s most obvious political beneficiary – is responsible for the release of the recordings. “This is a very conspiracy-oriented society,” said Mehmet Arisan, a specialist in political psychology at Istanbul Technical University. “If people have a strong belief in some political movement or leader, it’s difficult to make them see through that.”

Moreover, despite entrenched, conservative attitudes on sexual and marital issues, Turks often apply different standards to politics than they do to their own communities, Arisan believes. “In some parts of the community, there is a lynching mindset,” said Arisan. Indeed, Turkey’s government tried to criminalize adultery in 2004, and a survey last year by the Pew Research Centre suggested that 16 percent of Turkish Muslims favored stoning as a punishment for adulterers.

“But when it’s mixed with politics, the reaction can be different,” Arisan added. “Everyone knows that if there is an exposé of an MHP deputy, there can easily be one of an AKP deputy, too. Some people can see the MHP candidates as victimized because they know that this is the result of some political competition.”

In light of the notorious unreliability of Turkish opinion polls, most observers remain cautious over assessing the tapes’ impact.

Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, believes that if the perception that the AKP is resorting to dirty tricks gains traction, it could end up helping the MHP mobilize its urban base. The PR damage could be more difficult to repair among the party’s rural supporters, who tend to be more conservative, Aktar added. “But at the end of the day, there won’t be a dramatic impact because, in the meantime, there are lots of other things happening,” he said.

For some observers, the party’s recent troubles are merely symptomatic of a long decline. “Regardless of the tapes, the MHP has lost its Turkish nationalist vote to the Islamist right,” said Oray Egin, a columnist for the Akşam newspaper.

Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey: Sizing Up the Impact of Sex on Politics

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