Erdoğan eyes first-round re-election through MHP alliance

Erdoğan eyes first-round re-election through MHP alliance

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on Jan. 9 welcomed a call from Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli for an alliance with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), inviting him to talk about the matter in a meeting on Jan. 10.

Addressing the AK Parti group in parliament, Erdoğan said his supporters should be ready for the local, presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place in 2019 and thanked Bahçeli for all the support so far. Following the invitation, Bahçeli said their cooperation could go beyond the 2019 elections, depending on the meeting today.

Bahçeli had played a key role through his support for Erdoğan in the parliamentary voting to take constitutional changes to a referendum in April 2017, which gave all executive power to the presidency and reduced the checks and balances capacities of parliament and the justice system. 

Bahçeli’s support for Erdoğan exacerbated a split in the MHP, with party dissidents reminding Bahçeli that they appealed to voters in the 2015 election campaign by promising to stop Erdoğan from becoming Turkey’s president and sole ruler. That split ultimately led to the emergence of another political party, the Good (İYİ) Party, and the MHP is now at risk of falling under the 10 percent national election threshold to enter parliament. 

Awareness of that risk has prompted Bahçeli to publicly ask Erdoğan to either lower the threshold or to pass a necessary constitutional change that would allow a formal election alliance. The AK Parti, however, has other ideas. Citing a practice used in earlier elections, some AK Parti figures have suggested the formula of MHP deputy candidates entering elections on AK Parti lists. After being elected without having the need to exceed the 10 percent hurdle, they could then resign to rejoin the MHP and thus continue their presence in parliament that way.

The AK Parti is not keen on decreasing the threshold, hoping that the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) - which was slightly above the threshold in 2015 - could fell below it and the AK Parti could thus dominate Kurdish votes. Bahçeli would agree with that, but he has another concern: If the MHP does not enter the election under its own name then the votes it will get would not be officially registered and the party would therefore not be able to benefit from the Treasury support for parties that win a minimum of 7 percent in parliamentary elections.

So the kind of alliance formula that Erdoğan and Bahçeli will develop remains a matter of curiosity. Their maneuvers are certainly important, as it will lead to a brand new experience in Turkish politics. 

Coalitions have of course been tried before, including with the MHP. Having never come out on top in any national election in the past, the MHP took part in a number of different coalitions before the AK Parti came to power in 2002.

The “Nationalist Front” coalitions of the late 1970s played a key role in dragging Turkey down the path of polarization and near-civil war before the 1980 military coup. Years later, the three-way coalition between 1999 and 2002, during which Turkey experienced its worst ever financial crisis, was also not exactly successful.

By responding positively to Bahçeli, Erdoğan obviously has his eye on a re-election victory in the first round of voting in November 2019. If the two leaders are able to find a formula for an election partnership to secure a 50-percent-plus-one vote for Erdoğan to get re-elected, the result would be something less like a coalition and more like a political front. 

That would certainly help Erdoğan feel more comfortable in the 2019 elections. But it would lead to more uncertainty about what it could do to Turkey’s already tense political atmosphere.

Murat Yetkin, hdn, Opinion