The AKP-MHP convergence in Turkish politics
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli recently declared that his party would give full support for the re-election of President Tayyip Erdoğan, the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).
In Turkey’s most recent parliamentary election in November 2015, one of the pillars of Bahçeli’s campaign was to not let Erdoğan concentrate all executive power in presidential hands. Back then, he argued that such a development would weaken both parliament and the judiciary.
The July 2016 military coup attempt was a turning point in Bahçeli’s stance. He had already been accusing the illegal network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen of a conspiracy that caused him to lose a number of MPs, and once it became clear that Gülenists were involved in the coup attempt Bahçeli sided with Erdoğan. He ended up giving full support to the government’s declaration of the state of emergency on July 20, 2016, unlike the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called it a “civilian coup” opportunistically following the military coup attempt.
It would not have been possible for Erdoğan to take the constitutional changes to the April 2017 referendum on concentrating executive powers in the presidency if Bahçeli had not supported him in parliament. Despite the split in the MHP, Bahçeli’s support for Erdoğan continued in the referendum and nudged the “Yes” votes over the line, giving it 51.5 percent of the vote according to official results.
Bahçeli now says his support for Erdoğan could extend beyond the 2019 elections. This further strengthens the idea that a serious convergence is underway between the conservative AK Parti, with Islamic roots, and the nationalist MHP, which used to be criticized by Erdoğan and AK Parti officials as a party of “ethnicity-focused racists.”
The line between conservative and nationalists policies is already quite thin. But the convergence between the AK Parti and the hardline MHP on, for example, the Kurdish issue and the struggle against acts of terror by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been marked.
So why has Bahçeli been dragging his party closer to the AK Parti and why has Erdoğan allowed this?
There are two sets of answers to that question.
The first set is about the re-election of Erdoğan in November 2019. Erdoğan will need 50 percent-plus-one-vote in order to achieve that in the first round. It does not seem possible – at least at the moment - that Erdoğan could achieve this with only AK Parti votes, as the 2017 referendum showed. He knows that he needs extra support and also saw in the June 2015 election that reconciliatory policies in the Kurdish issue could jeopardize Turkish nationalist voters who are inclined to the AK Parti.
The second set of answers is about the MHP. As Erdoğan shifted to more nationalist rhetoric, the MHP grassroots - especially the more pious voters - started sliding to the ranks of the AK Parti. This was not really a huge shift anyway, as the grassroots of the AK Parti and the MHP mostly share similar social backgrounds already. Bahçeli realized that he had to do something to stop the erosion in his party.
The MHP has always been a party with a strong ideology, which has never been in a leading role politically. It managed to be a part of governments in the 1970s and 1990s through various coalitions, enabling its grassroots to benefit from sharing the government. But under the single-party governments of the AK Parti since 2002, the MHP has lost that prospect. Erdoğan’s 50 percent-plus-one vote reelection necessity has now apparently presented an opportunity to Bahçeli: The opportunity to once again be part of government, benefiting from it even without formally sharing responsibilities.
The AK Parti and the MHP are now engaging in talks to find a legal basis for entering elections under one banner while officially maintaining their own identities. Another struggle for Bahçeli in keeping the identity of the MHP alive is making sure it gets more than 7 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary election, which is the minimum required to secure Treasury support for political parties.