Bahçeli’s high stakes gambit

Bahçeli’s high stakes gambit

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is spearheading a campaign full of insults and innuendoes against Prime Minister Erdoğan, promising to have him impeached for treason over the talks the government has initiated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Meanwhile, MHP supporters are hounding members of the “Wise Persons” group, who were selected by the government to explain the process with the PKK to the public around the country and report back what people are saying about it. Some of this hounding suggests that violence against these people could be around the corner.

This possibility has prompted former Minister of Justice Mehmet Şahin, who is currently one of the most senior members of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), to say that if anything happens to any of the “Wise Persons,” the one to blame will be MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli.

Bahçeli, however, remains defiant in terms of his inflammatory ultra-nationalist rhetoric. He also remains firmly behind what he said to an angry crowd of supporters gathered to protest the process with the PKK in Bursa on March 23. With the crowd chanting, “Tell us to strike and we will strike, tell us to die and we will die,” Bahçeli bellowed back, “Don’t worry, the time will come for that too.”

Such rabble rousing has prompted Erdoğan to respond by saying they would not allow urban terrorism at a time when they were ending terrorism in the mountains. MHP members, and supporters attached to the group known as the “Grey Wolves,” were implicated in many deadly attacks against left wing and liberal activists in the 1980s. It is not hard to imagine, therefore, that the government is vigilant today against right-wing terrorism.

The MHP obviously expects the PKK talks to collapse and harm the AKP’s prospects in the lead up to municipal and presidential elections in 2014, and the general elections shortly thereafter. The expectation is that Turkish nationalistic sentiments will finally alert the public to the danger Erdoğan and the AKP pose for Turkey.

However, it is more likely that it is not Erdoğan who is playing a high stakes game here, but rather Bahçeli. Polls indicate that most members of the public still support the process with the PKK. The announcement by the group that it will observe a cease-fire and start pulling its militants out of Turkey as of May 8 has also strengthened Erdoğan hand.

But Erdoğan still has much to do and will now have to explain what the PKK is to gain in return for all this, seeing as it is not going along with this process without having secured something for itself.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has likened the government’s task in trying to bring this process to a successful conclusion to trying to cross a rapidly flowing river. There is a good chance that Erdoğan will get to the other side of the turbulent river, but he still has strong currents to contend with.

There is not doubt, however, that if he succeeds he will only add to his political strength. His success will also spell disaster for the Bahçeli and the MHP who, after all the insults and threats, will have failed to excite enough nationalist sentiment to undermine Erdoğan and the AKP politically. Most analysts maintain that Erdoğan’s popularity remains high in Turkey. They recall that the AKP got one out of every two votes in the June 2011 general elections, despite its first “Kurdish opening” in 2009 and 2010, which also involved contacts with the PKK, but which ended in a fiasco as they were ill prepared.

The MHP, as well as the main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP), believed at the time that the fiasco would spell doom for the AKP. But Erdogan brought the AKP a landslide victory in June 2011 and shattered these expectations. If Erdogan comes out even stronger from the current process, Bahçeli and his ultra-nationalist supporters will undoubtedly be the real losers. This is Bahçeli’s high stakes gambit.