The win-win game of Erdoğan and Bahçeli
Devlet Bahçeli was re-elected on Mar 18 as Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head, even though he was the only candidate. In the former congress he had rivals, all of whom have now joined the Good Party (IYI), described by Bahçeli in yesterday’s speech as “dead weights thrown away.”
Bahçeli has a smaller but stronger party in his view. How small and how strong are two legitimate questions, but in Turkish politics they are not necessarily directly related. For example, Ahmet Takan of Yeniçağ newspaper, close to the IYI, quoted a public opinion poll claiming that the MHP was well below the 10 percent national threshold for parliamentary representation, while Milliyet’s Serpil Çevikcan referred to polls presented to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which put the MHP in the 9-10 percent band.
The possibility of being left out of parliament in the 2019 legislative elections, which will take place at the same time as the first round of the presidential elections in November, has decreased neither the power nor the influence of the MHP, thanks to Bahçeli’s successful political tactics.
His first move came right on the night of the June 7, 2015 elections, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) lost a parliamentary majority. The alternative was a three-party coalition with the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Kurdish-issue focused Democratic People’s Party (HDP) and Bahçeli did not hesitate a moment to call for another election. The resumption of acts of terror from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was already giving a reason for Erdoğan to end indirect dialogue over a peaceful settlement, and so he declared another election on Nov. 1 and won back the parliamentary majority.
Bahçeli’s second move was to support Erdoğan’s plans to give all the executive powers to the presidency, changing the parliamentary system through a constitutional change. Bahçeli’s remaining deputies were enough to supplement the AK Parti’s own deputies in the parliamentary voting to take the changes to a referendum. Knowing that it would be almost impossible to win the referendum otherwise, Erdoğan considered Bahçeli advice’s on the April 16, 2017 referendum, including a two-round election. The election in the first round would only be possible if any candidate could get 50 percent plus one vote. That condition was the start of a kind of political symbiosis between the AK Parti and the MHP.
Bahçeli’s third move was to press for a change in legislation allowing election alliances between the parties, which was rushed through the parliament last week and approved by Erdoğan two days before the MHP congress.
With those three moves, Bahçeli has secured a group in parliament in the 2019 elections. MHP votes will be counted as part of the alliance with the AK Parti and also influence government policies and structure without bearing any responsibility: A sort of coalition partner of a single-party government.
And perhaps as a goodwill gesture to Erdoğan, Bahçeli signaled in his address to the MHP congress yesterday that he could get into local alliances with the AK Parti in the municipal elections in March 2019. That could be a vital support for Erdoğan who definitely wants to win (or not to lose) the municipalities of big cities that said “No” in the referendum, despite the AK Parti-MHP alliance.
Bahçeli also gave a blank check to Erdoğan if Erdoğan wants to get into a hard bargaining with the West, the U.S. the European Union and even the NATO.
Needless to say, as long as this alliance stands the MHP will not seek a softer stance in the fight against the PKK or support any softer stance in AK Parti policies regarding the Kurdish issue.
Right after the military coup on 12 Sep 1980, one of the MHP executives, Agah Oktay Güner, who was put in prison along with many others, said in the courtroom in his (or the MHP’s) defense that the MHP was a “movement that has its members in prison but its ideas in power.”
It can be speculated that Bahçeli has followed a similar line. Through his successful tactics he can influence government policies without officially sharing the responsibility, share power through bureaucracy as a de facto coalition partner of a single party government, and get his party into parliament without having to pass the 10 percent threshold.
This is the outlook of the win-win plan for both Erdoğan and Bahçeli: Both leaders get what they want.
The administrative system in Turkey has changed in the meantime but the MHP has always supported the slogan of “National state, strong government.”