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Turkey: Ataturk criticism threatens ruling alliance's unity

President Erdogan's alliance with far-right allies is being tested, including by a mobster's allegations and a close friend's remarks about Turkey's founder
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and leader of Nationalist Movement Party Devlet Bahceli (L) greet their supporters in 2019 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Cracks have emerged in Turkey's ruling alliance after the far-right ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a childhood friend of the president's to be investigated over comments labelling the republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk a “tyrant and infidel”.

On Tuesday, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has an electoral alliance with Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), lashed out at an imam who had indirectly denounced Ataturk in a ceremony at Hagia Sophia mosque.

In a televised parliamentary address, Bahceli said that Imam Mustafa Demirkan should be investigated as to whether he was a secret supporter of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the government accuse of being behind the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

“Ataturk is our union. Animosity towards Ataturk is a servitude to treason,” said Bahceli. “Do those who insult Ataturk believe that they are more of a Muslim?”

Bahceli’s comments were significant because Erdogan is reportedly an old friend of Demirkan and because he sat silently as the imam delivered his remarks in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, the former church that was converted into a mosque under the Ottoman empire, before being converted to a museum by Ataturk and then back into a mosque by Erdogan in 2020.

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'Do those who insult Ataturk believe that they are more of a Muslim?'

- Devlet Bahceli, MHP leader

Demirkan said that the Hagia Sophia and similar places were built as temples, but there was a time in Turkey when the country's rulers restricted Islamic prayers and calls to prayer, while the Hagia Sophia was turned to a museum.

“Who could be more tyrant and infidel than those?” he said.

“Lord, don’t command fate to make this mentality to become the ruler of this nation again.”

Erdogan last year reconverted the ancient building into a mosque following a court order. 

An AKP official, speaking anonymously to Sozcu daily, said that Erdogan and Demirkan had been close friends since their childhood.

“Demirkan would stay at Erdogan’s house when they visit the city of Rize,” the official said. “When Erdogan was a local politician, he would visit the mosque headed by Demirkan.”

Growing tensions at the top

Though clashes over the legacy of Ataturk and the nature of secularism in Turkey are commonplace, the spat has highlighted growing tensions between Bahceli and Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) needs the support of the MHP to maintain its majority in the parliament.

Earlier this year Bahceli really pushed for a constitutional court case against the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), which would potentially cause its total closure - something that the AKP has long resisted, having itself faced similar actions based on allegations that the party threatened the secular nature of the state.

The chief prosecutor eventually launched the case and, despite criticism within the AKP, Erdogan and senior leaders kept quiet.

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Then last month Dubai-based organised crime leader Sedat Peker, in popular videos posted on YouTube, started to target Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and and the son of former prime minister Binali Yildirim, accusing them of involvement in drug trafficking, corruption and extortion.

Even though both have vehemently denied the allegations, senior AKP officials, including Erdogan, have been mute, while an unnamed government official confirmed parts of Peker’s allegations against Soylu in a BBC Turkish report.

Many within the AKP consider Soylu, a fellow party member, to be closer to the MHP and Bahceli due to his fiery nationalist rhetoric and the cadres he worked with at the ministry. Bahceli last week strongly defended Soylu against what he calls a regional conspiracy, after which Erdogan followed suit.

Yet another senior Turkish official, speaking to Bloomberg after Erdogan’s speech last week, continued the criticism. The official said that much of the AKP governing elite was uncomfortable with the current AKP-MHP coalition.

“The majority wants a thorough investigation even though it would hurt ties with the MHP," he said.

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