Turbulence in nationalist party strengthens Turkish government

Turbulence in nationalist party strengthens Turkish government

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in Turkey has been embroiled in serious turbulence since the Nov. 1, 2015 election, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) managed to regain its parliamentary majority to form a single party government. The AK Parti’s victory came after it dropped the ball in the June 7 election. 

From June 7 to Nov. 1, the AK Parti managed to win back votes from two constituencies in particular: One was made up of conservative Kurdish votes peeled away from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); the other was made up of Turkish nationalist votes from the MHP. 

The reason for both was the same: The end of the three-year-long dialogue process between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in pursuit of a political solution to Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem. That collapse of the peace process came shortly after the June 7 election, when the AK Parti opted to respond massively to resumed acts of terrorism by the PKK. Conservative Kurds, who had developed a sympathy for the HDP and helped it reach an unprecedented vote share in June, returned to the AK Parti fold. Turkish nationalists who did not approve of the peace process returned from the MHP. 

There was also another factor too. Tuğrul Türkeş, the son of the MHP’s founder Alparslan Türkeş and one of the deputies closest to MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, resigned to join the AK Parti. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu included Türkeş in the AK Parti cabinet as a deputy prime minister before the Nov. 1 election - a position that he still keeps.

On June 7, both the HDP and the MHP won 80 seats in the 550-seat Turkish parliament; on Nov. 1, the HDP could only get 59 and the MHP won 40 seats. Both had even looked in danger of dropping below the 10 percent election threshold to enter parliament.

This marked the first time ever that the MHP, as the staunch voice of Turkish nationalism, fell below a Kurdish problem-focused party. The results broke the party’s steely discipline for a second consecutive time after the Türkeş affair. The intra-party opposition started to demand an emergency congress, but Bahçeli rebuffed these requests and insisted on holding the party’s regular congress in March 2018. The dissidents then took the issue to court, which ruled recently that there should be an emergency congress and this should be decided by a committee of trustees - no longer just by Bahçeli and his team.

Meanwhile, as Bahçeli was busy accusing his in-house rivals on April 12 of being manipulated by the U.S.-based Islamist ideologue Fethullah Gülen, three of the four candidates were in a meeting to examine the possibilities of forming a front to take down Bahçeli. 

Gülen - a former ally of President Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Parti - is now portrayed as public enemy number, with government supporters claiming that he tried to overthrow the AK Parti through a conspiracy within the state apparatus. It is interesting that Bahçeli is now taking a similar line to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu on this issue as he battles to retain his seat. He is also urging the government to take stronger action against the PKK and follow a no-dialogue line in the Kurdish issue.

Will that line help Bahçeli keep his chair and help his party recover? Or will it accelerate the flow of members toward the AK Parti. In either case, there is no doubt that Bahçeli is essentially giving valuable support to the government’s current line.