Why does Bahçeli’s outrage ring hollow?

Why does Bahçeli’s outrage ring hollow?

Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is a political ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is outraged over recent remarks by an AKP deputy. The deputy had suggested that the government is in the process of establishing a “new state” in Turkey headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“A discredited person has mentioned a new state out of nowhere. If you want the truth, it’s a waste of effort and time to take this unknown and shadowy person’s nonsensical talk seriously,” Bahçeli said over Twitter on Aug. 5.

The remark - which also angered main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu - came from Ayhan Oğan, who has served on the AKP’s executive board in the past. 

Bahçeli and Kılıçdaroğlu are now expecting a response from Erdoğan. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has already responded by claiming that Oğan was speaking for himself and not the party.

“Are you joking? The state of the Turkish Republic was established on Oct. 29, 1923,” Yıldırım told reporters, adding that this state remains firmly standing. Other AKP representatives also tried to belittle Oğan’s remarks by saying he had only expressed his personal opinion.

Oğan later tried to backpedal by using the classic argument that his words had been misconstrued. Be that as it may, he started a debate that is bound to have displeased Erdoğan and his close advisors, but not because what Oğan said is necessarily false.

The last thing Erdoğan needs is an outburst of anger from nationalist quarters, and especially those attached to the MHP, which supported his bid to become Turkey’s unchecked executive president.

The anger with Oğan’s remark reflected by Kılıçdaroğlu and CHP supporters is understandable. The “new state” Oğan refers to is clearly intended to supersede the Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Bahçeli’s words and his expectation of a response from Erdoğan, however, are not understandable. It is after all Erdoğan who himself says, day and night, that they are in the process of building “a New Turkey.”
The “new Turkey” that they are building is visibly moving away from the secular republic founded by Atatürk. Despite this, Bahçeli has consistently given the AKP the necessary outside support it needs to advance its Islamist cause. This is why his “outrage” over Oğan’s words rings hollow.

Bahçeli was clearly trying to mollify some ultra-nationalist voters who are not totally enamored with his cozying up to Erdoğan and the AKP - especially at a time when work is underway to establish a new nationalist party that will compete with the MHP in the 2019 general election.

Many argue that throwing in the MHP’s lot with the AKP and helping prepare the constitutional changes that turn Turkey into a presidential system led by Erdoğan is tantamount to political suicide for Bahçeli. We will not know if this is the case before 2019, but his political prospects do not appear good from today’s perspective.

Bahçeli’s dilemma is that he appears to have painted himself into a corner. No matter how much it rejects Oğan’s remarks, the AKP cannot give up on its “we are building the new Turkey” narrative at this stage.
But continuing with this narrative will undoubtedly pose many problems for Bahçeli’s support base in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

This support base could easily decide to go for the genuine article, namely a new nationalist party led by the charismatic Meral Akşener, rather than the MHP, which under Bahçeli has turned into no more than a prop for the AKP. It is not even a very effective prop, as the narrow April 16 referendum result showed.