Nationalists and Turkey’s presidential debate

Nationalists and Turkey’s presidential debate

As Turkey begins its journey toward the presidential referendum, disputes within nationalist circles are heating up. Even though Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chairman Devlet Bahçeli has announced that he would personally vote in favor of the presidential system, his parliamentary group is far from being totally convinced.

Dissident MHP deputies such as Yusuf Halaçoğlu or Ümit Özdağ (recently banned from the party) have from the beginning declared that they would vote against the referendum proposal. Disregarded by the MHP’s core electorate, these figures have no sizable impact on party sympathizers’ voting behavior. However, with the recent resignation of his close associate and MHP Deputy Chair Atila Kaya, Bahçeli seems to have taken a serious hit. 

Kaya resigned from his post on Jan. 4, just hours after Bahçeli announced to the press his positive stance on the oncoming presidential referendum debates. Kaya’s resignation was preceded by an open letter he addressed to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 11, 2015 in which he unveiled the main political motivations behind his opposition to the presidential system.

“Mr. President,” he wrote. “You constantly refer to the ‘Turkish-style presidential system.’ Let me ask you this: What is ‘Turkish-style’ in your character that enables you to speak about a ‘Turkish-style’ presidential system? Not so long ago you were even dismissing the use of the word ‘Turkish’ in your speeches. You were the first to assert that the concept of ‘Turkishness’ should be extracted from the constitution. What has changed in your mind?”

Unlike politicians such as Halaçoğlu, Kaya has the ear of the MHP’s core electorate. Between 1997 and 2003 he lead the MHP’s youth organization, the Idealist Hearths (Ülkü Ocakları). He is therefore rather appreciated and cherished among many nationalists. As his open 2015 letter to Erdoğan demonstrates, his criticism is solidly rooted in traditional nationalist discourse and aimed at rousing the MHP’s political base. 

Bahçeli has recently lost three of his deputy chairs: Yıldırım Tuğrul Türkeş, Ümit Özdağ and finally Atila Kaya. Apart from Özdağ, Türkeş and Kaya left the party due to internal discord. What’s more, Türkeş and Kaya are symbolic figures, each with their respective force. Unlike other dissidents, they did not leave their posts to run for party leadership. Instead, they put forward principles and fundamentals in their own manner.

Honest nationalists are indeed slightly worried about Bahçeli’s current strategy toward the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Rising numbers have begun questioning the “dangerous liaisons” established between the two parties. For sure, this wave of discontent marks the beginning of another turbulent era in the MHP.

Parliament will likely adopt the referendum proposal without any serious damage. However, potential reactions from within the MHP’s electorate are still unpredictable. As former MHP deputy chair and current Deputy Prime Minister Tuğrul Türkeş stated a few months ago: “Winning 49.5 percent could make you win the elections, but not a referendum.”