The ruling regime in Turkey has created its own unique nationalistic security discourse. Abdullah Esin and Mehmet Yaşar Altundağ argue that Turkey’s rising defence industry, while increasing Turkey's military capacity, also uses techno-nationalist rhetoric to consolidate the country's voter base and legitimise authoritarian practices
We recently paid a visit to Teknofest Aerospace and Technology Festival, at Ankara's Etimesgut Military Airport. On display were fighter jets, helicopters, Turkey's famous Baykar drones, and various other aerospace technology exhibits. The first Teknofest to be held in Ankara, the event attracted around a million visitors of all ages.
Perhaps surprisingly, many festival-goers were university students, hailing from a range of backgrounds. Indeed, Teknofest has succeeded in uniting Turkey's diverse population, bridging the secular-conservative divide among the country's youth. The festival promotes Turkish nationalism, and challenges superficial assessments of cultural and lifestyle differences.
Teknofest combines technological advancement with a celebration of militaristic nationalism. This allows the Erdoğan regime to exploit it as a strategic tool
But Teknofest is not merely a technology and defence industry fair. It combines technological advancement with a celebration of militaristic nationalism – and this allows Turkey's ruling regime, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to exploit it as a strategic tool.
Techno-nationalism focuses on investing in advancements in strategic sectors to achieve technological supremacy over competing nations. In recent years, it has become prevalent in Turkey's domestic and international discourse. Initially associated with the US and China, techno-nationalism started gaining traction in Turkey in 2018, when protectionism and developmentalism began to lose their significance.
Teknofest was originally designed to promote domestic defence industry technologies. But political discourse around the festival and the technology it promotes has enabled Erdoğan's government to showcase advancements in Turkey's defence industry as a challenge to Western dominance.
Historically, Turkey has lagged behind in technological and military capabilities, relying on support from the West. Erdoğan wants to rewrite that narrative. He portrays Turkey as a robust and rejuvenated country whose tangible military and technological advancements will see it striding rapidly towards full autonomy:
Here is the Turkish Nation that is breaking the centuries-old chains that were placed on its feet. Here is the light of the Turkish Century that enlightens the sad and oppressed hearts. You are the generation that will take our nation, which is treated like a pariah in its own country, and raise it uppresident erdoğan, teknofest, izmir, september 2023
This ideology endorses the country's assertive foreign policy, bolstering national pride and reinforcing the narrative of a powerful state. It also champions militarism and the expansion of the defence sector; indeed, it sees these developments as integral to national interest.
Techno-nationalism, to Erdoğan, does not signify a nationalism based on threats and grievances. Rather, it signals development and empowerment.
This political discourse gives Erdoğan strong political legitimacy and hegemony. Indeed, it has enabled him to remain in power despite economic meltdown, an influx of refugees and authoritarian practices.
Erdoğan's regime perpetuates political and social dominance through a dual strategy of exclusion and integration. Exclusionary tactics include political bans, party closures, and coercive measures implemented through the police and judiciary. The regime has excluded the Kurdish political movement and marginalised left-wing parties like the CHP. Through tactics of inclusion, on the other hand, the AKP-MHP alliance maintains the loyalty of approximately two-thirds of right-wing voters.
Teknofest is part of Erdoğan's strategy to unite the right and counter political polarisation. His New Turkey narrative focuses on development, modernisation, and security, seeking to close the gap between secular and conservative right-wing voters. This narrative, with its emphasis on national pride, security and military capability, has proved attractive to Turkey's youth.
Erdoğan has spoken in the past of his aim to create a pious generation of Turkish youth. Claiming that more religion would solve the country's problems, he bemoaned the country's dwindling numbers of theological students, graduates, and teachers. But his initiative failed to resonate with Turkey's young electorate. Instead, Turkey is seeing a clear trend towards secularisation and urbanisation, particularly among the younger generation.
There is a clear trend towards secularisation and urbanisation, particularly among Turkey's younger generation
These days, Erdoğan's speeches emphasise security, technological capacity and modernisation. He appears to have moved away from promoting religiosity, Islam or traditional values. This shift is likely a sociological necessity rather than simply a policy choice. Nationalism has replaced religiosity as a prevailing sentiment, especially among the youth. Turkey Trends 2022 research reveals that 61.5% of citizens aged 18–24 exhibit a 'high level of nationalism'.
It is crucial to differentiate the reactionary nationalism now emerging among the youth from the Nationalist Movement Party's traditional, conservative, provincial nationalism. Turkey's new nationalism is secular, reactionary, globally integrated and materialistic.
The proponents of reactionary nationalism tend to live secular lives, eschewing Islamist political and social visions. However, they do align with a form of nationalism that conforms to state-defined boundaries of freedom, and they steer clear of political ideologies they perceive as threats to Turkish survival.
The secular, reactionary nature of this new nationalism differentiates it from the nationalism espoused by the AKP-MHP People's Alliance. It presents a demographic challenge for Erdoğan's government, but also a new political opportunity. Unifying events such as Turkey's Teknofest can help Erdoğan integrate this reactionary, quasi-secular techno-nationalism into his power structure and voter base.