Turkish politics warms up with new moves

Turkish politics warms up with new moves

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli recently stirred the waters of Turkish politics with two separate but related statements.

The first was his questioning of the 10 percent national threshold in parliamentary elections. The second was his vow, addressing his party group in parliament, that the MHP would stand by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) until the 2019 elections.

The second offer was not exactly responded to with cheers in the AK Parti ranks. Party spokesman Mahir Ünal played down the offer, saying “time would show” whether Bahçeli’s words will result in an “election alliance.” He also noted that the MHP has been siding with the government in every key national issue anyway.

Can we interpret this as meaning that the AK Parti is taking for granted MHP support in every parliamentary vote until 2019? Not officially. But it is a fact that President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım value what Bahçeli says, particularly considering the MHP leader’s crucial support in parliament to vote for a referendum to shift Turkey to an executive presidential system. That referendum was held in April 2017 and the changes further boosting Erdoğan’s powers were narrowly approved by voters.

The recent emphasis on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in AK Parti ranks - following Erdoğan’s own change in tone – is also partly due to MHP sensitivities on the issue.

But his statement in favor of lowering the election threshold showed that Bahçeli is experiencing some discomfort with his party’s base.

In the past, the MHP and Bahçeli were staunch supporters of the 10 percent threshold, based on the calculation that it prevented Kurdish problem-focused parties from entering parliament. But when the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) surprised everyone in the June 2015 election, positions started to change. The HDP got 13.1 percent support in that election (the MHP got 16.3 percent), and when the election was repeated in November of the same year, the HDP’s support fell to 10.8 percent (the MHP’s fell to 11.9 percent). Although it received slightly fewer votes, the HDP won more seats in parliament than the MHP, making it the third biggest party in parliament.

There is another reason why Bahçeli might have worries about the 10 percent threshold in 2019. This reason is a new party, the “İYİ” Party (meaning “good” in Turkish), established by former MHP deputy Merak Akşener and bolstered by a large number of resignations from the MHP amid Bahçeli’s open support for Erdoğan. Surveys show that İYİ may have split the MHP in two, in addition to the votes that Akşener may attract from other parties.

Jailed HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş has long suggested that one of the real reasons behind his continued imprisonment is the attempt to pave the way for an AK Parti-MHP alliance.

Meanwhile, social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu mocked Bahçeli for his election threshold comments. He said he was happy to see Bahçeli come out in favor of lowering the threshold, for which the CHP has campaigned for many years.

CHP spokesman Bülent Tezcan also called on the AK Parti to entirely abolish the threshold, in reference to Erdoğan’s former suggestions to lower it to 5 or 7 percent with the consent of other parties. Prime Minister Yıldırım said in response that lowering the threshold could be discussed during parliament work for harmonizing the system to the executive presidential system, with the contribution of all parties.

If there is no lowering of the threshold, the AK Parti knows that Bahçeli has two options: Either stick with them, hoping that an election alliance will carry Bahçeli and the MHP to parliament (to form party groups after the vote); or staying out of parliament after falling below the existing 10 percent threshold. Of course, there are also others who could line up in front of the AK Parti’s doors in place of the MHP. The nationalist-Islamist Great Unity Party (BBP), which supported Erdoğan in the April referendum, is just one example.

In sum, Akşener’s foundation of the İYİ Party has seemingly delivered a blow to Bahçeli’s MHP, which has increased his dependency on Erdoğan’s AK parti.

At the same time, all is not calm on the AK Parti front either. After the forced resignation of a number of prominent elected mayors, including Istanbul’s Kadir Topbaş and Ankara’s Melih Gökçek, a number of ministers could also soon lose their seats, as signaled by a presidential adviser in a report penned by Hürriyet’s Deniz Zeyrek.

Both the AK Parti and the CHP have party congresses scheduled for the first months of 2018. Until then it looks like a lot could change in Turkey’s domestic politics, without even mentioning the possible effects of shifting international relations on the country’s economy and politics.

Murat Yetkin, hdn, Opinion