Keep your eyes on the MHP

Keep your eyes on the MHP

If there is one major Turkish political party that the Western media shows almost no interest in, it must be the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It is often described as “far-right,” “ultra-nationalist” or even “fascist,” and of course these are the labels that make everybody repulsed and look the other way. 

In fact, the ideological make-up of the MHP, which has been in Turkish politics since 1969, has not always been that simple, or necessarily that scary, but that is a long story in itself. Today, I am going tell you something else, something more actual: If there is going to be a significant change in Turkish politics soon, it will come from the MHP more than anywhere else.

Here is the very simple reason: The MHP is the only party which “shares a base” with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In other words, many people who vote for the AKP can also potentially vote for the MHP, because both parties refer to the primordial values of the conservative, Sunni, Anatolian bloc (if you want to compare it to America, you can call it “red America”). 

No wonder in the past two subsequent elections, in June and November 2015, a major swing took place between these two parties. In June 2015, the AKP had declined to 41 percent of the votes, whereas the MHP had jumped to 16 percent. In November 2015, a major slide took place. The AKP jumped to 49 percent, while the MHP declined to 11 percent. Millions of conservative swing voters, in other words, moved from the MHP to the AKP.

This dramatic decline of the MHP had something to do with the upsurge of terrorism and the demand for “stability.”  But it also had something to do with the dull and static performance of its longtime leader, Devlet Bahçeli.

That is why lately an intra-party opposition has grown against Bahçeli. There are now four younger and more attractive faces challenging him: Ümit Özdağ, Sinan Ogan, Koray Ayaydın and Meral Akşener. The last one, especially, is a very promising and charismatic figure. As a female politician coming from the center-right, many people think she can both make the MHP move towards the mainstream and boost its votes. Polls suggest that an MHP led by Akşener can easily grab some 20 percent of the votes, which would rule out AKP domination in the next election, whenever that will be.  

But there is a problem: The MHP is supposed to have its next congress in 2018, and Bahçeli insists on sticking to the calendar. Hence the intra-party opposition leaders first collected signatures from delegates and then went to a court to have a snap congress. The court voted in favor of them, but Bahçeli took the issue to the Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, another court voted against the opposition. So a legal battle has been going on. In fact, as I was writing this piece, the intra-party opposition was waiting for a court a decision until the last minute, to see if they can have the snap congress right this Sunday, on May 15. 

One more thing: If you and I are noticing this potential in the MHP, President Tayyip Erdoğan must be noticing it, too. No wonder Bahçeli has lately become a darling of the pro-Erdoğan media, whereas Akşener was depicted as a pawn of a nefarious conspiracy. Many people believe that the president and his men would love to keep Bahçeli in power, to keep the MHP weak. Some even believe that this may have an effect on the legal battle that is going on. 

So, if I were you, I would keep my eyes on the MHP - as the powers that be are already doing very keenly.