Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state should pay the electricity bills for all cemevis, or worship halls, of the Muslim sect known as the Alevis, the country’s largest religious minority. The decision comes a month after a visit by Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, to a cemevi, a first since he assumed office in 2017. The overture also comes several months before Turkey’s municipal elections, which are scheduled for next March. Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) tried to lure Alevi voters with similar empty gestures in the run up to the previous elections to no avail. The AKP’s latest charm offensive will again fail to whitewash the party’s sectarian track record and coopt staunchly pro-secular Alevi voters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approval ratings have tanked due to the country’s economic downturn and the encroaching stagflation that economists predicted for the last quarter of 2018. A looming electoral backlash from a disgruntled electorate forced the Turkish strongman to cut a deal with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) on November 24. The promise of ultranationalist support in major metropolitan centers came a month after the MHP leader announced that his partnership with Erdogan, which had helped him win the presidential and parliamentary elections in June, would not hold for municipal elections. Erdogan’s recognition that he may need more than the ultranationalists to win local governments, the leading source of his handouts to party loyalists, has forced him again to reach out to Alevi voters, who have suffered the most from the AKP’s sectarian policies.
The Alevi electorate is no stranger to the AKP’s charm offensives. Mehmet Gormez, the former president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, paid two visits to cemevis, a first in the history of the Turkish Republic, 16 days before the 2011 parliamentary elections and five months before the 2014 municipal elections. Erdogan’s immediate predecessor, Abdullah Gul, followed up the latter visit two weeks later. Erdogan attempted similar outreach to the Alevis in the run-up to the 2011 elections, a move The Economist criticized as being just “for show” and as part of his attempts to “manipulate the sectarian divide.”
For decades, Turkey’s Alevis have been struggling for recognition of the legal status of their community as well as their worship halls. Despite various rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, successive AKP governments have refused to undertake legal steps mandated by Strasbourg’s verdicts. The Turkish government covers the electricity bills of more than 90,000 mosques and 387 synagogues and churches of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Latin Catholic communities. Yet Alevis and other religious minorities such as Protestants, Mormons, and the Bahai, among others, have to pay the utility bills of their worship halls.
Under the AKP’s 16-year rule, sectarianism has deepened in Turkey. Despite various overtures to the Alevis, the AKP has systematically eliminated all Alevis from the ranks of governors and police chiefs of 81 provinces, who are appointed by the government. In 2012, when an Alevi lawmaker from the pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) demanded that parliament designate a space for a cemevi alongside the parliament’s mosque, the parliamentary speaker refused, claiming that the Alevi faith “is not a separate religion.” More recently, officials denied an imprisoned Alevi lawmaker’s demand to have visits from an Alevi spiritual leader, a right granted to Sunnis.
As the AKP’s tradition of remembering Alevi voters immediately before challenging elections continues, the Alevi electorate is unlikely to fall for a trick that they have seen one too many times. Polls show that only a handful of Alevis vote for Erdogan’s AKP. The latest overtures will once again fail to coopt a staunchly pro-secular religious minority.
Aykan Erdemir was a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011-2015) and is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.