A pro-government opposition in Turkey?
It was around 2014, at one of the last receptions of Abdullah Gül toward the end of his presidential term at the Çankaya Palace in Ankara, when it was still Turkey’s presidential palace. A group of reporters had surrounded a minister or top bureaucrat to take their chances to find a bit of information.
There I saw Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), standing next to a table in a circle with a number of MHP deputies.
Over the years Bahçeli and I have been in a strictly journalist-politician relationship, which has always been conducted within the boundaries of politeness. For example, minutes after publicly denouncing me at an MHP group meeting in parliament as a defamer of the nationalist movement for writing articles in favor of harmonization with the EU in June 2004, we came face to face and Bahçeli asked me politely how I was. In 1997, when he was elected leader of his party after the passing away of its founding leader Alparslan Türkeş, I was the first journalist to convince this reserved politician to join a live show when I was the Ankara bureau chief of private broadcaster NTV. Later as the Ankara bureau chief of Sabah and Radikal, I also received a number of exclusive statements from him, and together with Fikret Bila managed to conduct some rare live interviews for CNN Türk.
When I saw Bahçeli standing there in 2014 I wanted to say hello so I approached him. After exchanging a few courteous words and asking whether he would perhaps give another interview to the Hürriyet Daily News, he told me: “Mr. Yetkin, in the past there were nice TV shows. You used to invite us and squeeze us with questions, but at least we had the chance to get our voices heard.” After a pause he continued: “Now you don’t have such programs and we cannot appear on the screens.”
As an opposition leader, Bahçeli was complaining to a journalist about how he could find less and less chance to appear in the media as the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) extended. In the following months and years that problem continued, as in August 2015 the MHP supported the same candidate, (Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, now an MHP member of parliament), with the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for the presidential election against (then) Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. The motivation of Bahçeli back then was that Erdoğan wanted to take the country to a presidential system while he himself was in favor of reinforcing the parliamentary system.
So Bahçeli used to complain that he could never find much chance to get his voice heard in the media, other than in his weekly addresses to his parliamentary group. But yesterday, Feb. 12, that chain seemed to be broken. His full speech after a consultations with (the remainder of) his party in the Central Anatolian city of Konya was broadcast live by almost all the stations, public and private, which interrupted their Sunday morning programs for it. That is the same treatment given by TV stations whenever President Erdoğan or Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım speak.
The MHP continues to be split ahead of the April 16 referendum on constitutional changes to shift to an executive presidential system, as President Erdoğan has targeted for years. A number of MHP members have either been expelled by Bahçeli or stamped out as dissidents for not obeying his decision to support Erdoğan and say “Yes” in the referendum.
Bahçeli has pointed to the July 15, 2016 coup attempt as the reason for the shift in his stance on the presidency, saying it has become an existential matter for the homeland. (President Erdoğan, by the way, said on Feb. 12 before departing for Bahrain that those voting “No” in the referendum were falling into the same ranks as the July 15 plotters.)
In his speech, Bahçeli also spoke about two other key issues: He praised the government’s military campaign in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, but warned against Russian plots backing the Kurdish nationalism against Turkey. He also slammed the CHP, saying it had caused the current situation because of the mistakes it has made over the years, despite the fact that the CHP has not been in government since 1996 even as a coalition partner.
None of the lines in Bahçeli’s televised speech contained any critical parts that could disturb the government. By adopting such a line, the MHP is leaving the entire opposition area to the CHP, (since the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party has been crippled by detentions and arrests of their MPs).
Bahçeli’s stance could well be a novel Turkish contribution to global political literature, perhaps described as “pro-government opposition”? The MHP is not a formal coalition partner of the AK Parti government, but it can certainly be said that its current stance is unique.