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Should Turkey’s ruling party make more concessions to its nationalist junior partner?

A growing rift between Turkey’s ruling AKP and the nationalist MHP highlights their ideological differences

Three weeks in Turkish politics can be a long time. At the start of the month, Turkish journalists close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were predicting that its alliance with the much smaller Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) would continue up to and beyond local elections next March.

This week, however, it began to appear that the alliance had broken down, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and MHP leader Devlet Bahceli trading rebukes over Erdogan’s rejection of two MHP proposals.

The first was to reinstate a nationalist oath in primary schools, making every child pledge themselves to their country and the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of the Turkish Republic. It was scrapped in 2013, to the disappointment of many nationalist Turks - but Kurds, liberals, and Islamists were mostly pleased to see it go. In a rebuff to the MHP, Erdogan this week said that Turkey’s national anthem was the sole oath the AKP recognises.

Call for amnesty

The president was equally firm in refusing the MHP’s repeated requests for a general amnesty for most categories of common crimes (though not for political offences, terrorism or sex crimes). He appeared to cast aspersions on Bahceli’s motives for wanting to free certain prisoners, especially a notorious mafia boss whom Bahceli visited in prison last spring.

In what was taken as a particularly pointed reference, the president said that “drug barons” were not suitable candidates for pardons. That triggered a furious response from the MHP leader, who has been pushing for the amnesty since spring, and a strong retort from the AKP, which said that Bahceli had been personally disrespectful towards the president.

Coming on top of the AKP’s failure to give the MHP any cabinet places after the June elections, it looks as though the party is getting a bad bargain in its 'people’s alliance' with the AKP

Tempers flared, and it now seems clear that the MHP will not instruct its voters to support the AKP in the March elections. If that is the case, some big cities - notably the AKP strongholds of Ankara and Istanbul - may be vulnerable.

The MHP’s move is not altogether surprising, as despite inter-party bargaining, the AKP appears to have offered them nothing tangible in the way of candidates. Coming on top of the AKP’s failure to give the MHP any cabinet positions after the June elections, it looks as though the party made a bad bargain in its “people’s alliance” with the AKP.

A crucial ally

Amid this backdrop, some MHP members stepped up the pressure on Wednesday. MHP sources leaked claims to the media that the party would be fielding Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara from 1994 until he was forced to quit last year. Gokcek has a mixed reputation, and his successor seems to be more popular - but if he stands against the AKP, it would be an embarrassing rebuff to the ruling party.

But how far will this split be allowed to go? Columnists in several newspapers have been sceptical of a lasting division, pointing out that the AKP and MHP need each other.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife greet supporters during the sixth AKP congress in Ankara on 18 August 2018 (AFP)

Bahceli has been a crucial ally for Erdogan since 2015, when he blocked attempts by three other opposition parties to form a coalition government that would have removed the AKP from power. When his pro-AKP stand triggered a serious revolt in the ranks of his own party, Turkish authorities prevented rebel politicians from holding a special conference to remove him as leader. These politicians subsequently went into the wilderness, establishing a new party that did not enjoy the substantial state subsidies that went to existing opposition parties in the June elections.

The interests of both the AKP and MHP seem to suggest that they will step back from the brink and try to resume their partnership. Bahceli seemed to acknowledge that on Wednesday, indicating that the MHP’s support for the AKP would continue after the local elections. Though Turkey’s Grand National Assembly is less central to the government than it was before the presidential system was introduced this summer, any attempt to block government legislation would trigger a new crisis from which the MHP might not emerge advantageously - but it would also undermine the nascent presidential system.

Direct competitors

According to Burhanettin Duran, a columnist in the pro-AKP Daily Sabah: “Erdogan and Bahceli formed and kept afloat the People’s Alliance as leaders of two rival political parties. It is clear that their agreement was key to the consolidation of Turkey's presidential system of government.”

Nonetheless, the AKP and MHP have ideological differences: One has an Islamic view of Turkey’s identity and goals, while the other is ultra-nationalist. This makes them direct competitors in many interior provinces in Turkey, where the MHP, rather than the centre-left opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), is the alternative for dissatisfied AKP voters.

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One particular sticking point is part of the dispute over the primary school oath: ethnic identity. The AKP attracts a strong Kurdish vote and is still neck-and-neck with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in many southeastern provinces. While the AKP has been ruthless and uncompromising towards supporters of Kurdish autonomy, several leading AKP ministers and presidential advisers are Kurdish, a fact that Erdogan acknowledges with pride.

Even if tempers cool, it would seem that the AKP must chose between making more concessions to its nationalist junior partner or facing chronic tensions.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: MHP leader Devlet Bahceli shakes hands with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 27 June 2018 (Turkish Presidential Press Service/Kayhan Ozer/AFP)

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