Disclaimer: this column is not an endorsement of any party and merely consists of observations.
If you had told observers in the 1970s that the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) would one day become a decisive power broker as an ally of a party like the “Islamist” AKP (Justice and Development Party) they would have deemed it highly unlikely. Yet in 2018, a coalition of the AKP, MHP and BBP (Greater Unity Party) has won the presidential election for Erdoğan under the umbrella of the People’s Alliance.
Founded and led by ex-colonel Alparslan Türkeş since 1969, the MHP achieved great of notoriety in the 1970s. Under the tolerant eye of the Turkish state, armed gangs linked to the MHP fought with Marxist and Kurdish insurgents and committed murders of opponents. Türkeş was a secularist and ultranationalist who formed the MHP due to disillusion with the CHP (Republican People’s Party) which he perceived as having deviated too far from the principles of Mustafa Kemal.
The party, however, consistently failed to gain a large voter base in comparison to other parties – while it gained a loyal following, it polled some 3.4% and 6.42% of the vote in 1973 and 1978 respectively. MHP-linked violence – which the Turkish army had encouraged – was used by the army to justify its 1980 coup and ban the party, leading many to cynically note that the party’s ideas were in power but its leaders in prison.
The party was reconstituted in 1980 and support was steadily growing – Türkeş went on to poll over 7% of the vote in the 1997 election before dying in the same year.
Türkeş was charismatic and is still revered, but his party had a tainted reputation due to its association with violence and ultranationalism. Devlet Bahçeli would change that.
Born in 1948, Bahçeli ironically came from a leftist household. In university he became involved with the MHP-aligned Grey Wolves and quickly and quietly became a respected face in nationalist circles. Contrary to the image presented by detractors and foreign media organisations of Grey Wolves and MHP members being incoherent racists, Bahçeli was appreciated by others for his ability to get on with others and avoid infighting.
Turkes invited him to become a member of the MHP proper in 1987. When Turkes died in 1997, Bahçeli took over as party leader.
Bahçeli realised that the party’s key to success was respectability with the electorate. He went about giving the party a new face; keeping the Grey Wolves off the streets and moving away somewhat from the racial nationalism of Atatürk (a move Türkeş would have found appalling) to a more civic, cultural nationalism. Türkeş firmly opposed a peace deal to end the Kurdish insurgency in favour of a military solution – Bahçeli does the same, but insists his problem is with the PKK and not the Kurds themselves.
Bahçeli has often been mocked for his his melodramatic presentation during his speeches. While known for a good sense of humour, he has even been known to include a strange mixture of equations and jokes. This and his seemingly “random” political moves have led many to underestimate him or take him for an old fool.
But Bahçeli’s decades in politics have shown that he is anything but without a plan – his decisions and style betray a master politician with a cunning mind.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s an interest in Islam and “Islamist”* politics reappeared – as it had done every few decades, before being intermittently suppressed by military coups as per Atatürk’s instructions. This time it came in the form of the rise of Erdoğan and the AKP, which rapidly made itself known as a popular up-and-coming political force after its establishment in 2001. Mainstream politicians, Bahçeli among them, could see the rise clearly. While the AKP is not in reality an “Islamic” party (the party is secularist and champions man-made law as opposed to the shari’ah) the party espoused Islamic rhetoric in its interpretation of an ideal Turkey and thus tapped into a vast well of Muslim sentiment.*
Bahçeli’s party has traditionally been Kemalist and militantly secular – the party has always espoused Islam as a key part of its belief system, but traditionally saw Islam as less of a faith for all walks of life and more as a branch of Turkish culture. Much is still unchanged, however Bahçeli was ironically to play a key role in the rise of the AKP.
By 1999 his party had gained respectability and mainstream support as a result of his reforms, winning 18% of the vote and 129 seats in the 1999 election. Bahçeli thus became Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition with the DSP (Democratic Left Party) and ANAP (Motherland Party). But it was not to last; in 2002 Bahceli suddenly brought down the government by calling for a snap election, having had many disagreements with his coalition partners. His move created a vacuum among the conservative right that allowed the new conservative party – the AKP – to fill the void and take power in 2002. As a result the MHP’s support dipped below 10% and it lost all its parliamentary representation.
But why would Bahçeli do this, some asked? Why deprive himself of his hard-won power base and deal a victory to his ostensible enemies?
The answer is simple, from my perspective: Bahçeli played the long game. I believe he could not only see the rise of Islamic sentiment but also predict the AKP becoming a key player in the long-run. Thus he could well have brought down the government, seemingly at a loss to himself, because the AKP would then be indebted to him and feel inclined to offer a seat at the table in the long run. By staying in his coalition with the DSP and ANAP he would have secured his power in the short-term but gained less in the long-term. The era of secular leftist parties like the DSP and ANAP was coming to a close and he would likely have ended up voted out of office before long. Working with the AKP offered a promising opportunity for a longer, consolidated role in politics.
Two years earlier Bahçeli, a supporter of the death penalty, had pulled another seemingly inexplicable move by refusing to vote against a proposed law banning the death penalty. Another stupid move? Wrong. His neutrality caused the bill to be withdrawn. The death penalty is not yet legal, but neither is it forbidden to reintroduce it either – which it may well have become had he voted against the bill, since a large majority of MPs were in favour of the ban at the time.
In 2007 Bahçeli again did what the Americans would call “a huge solid” for the AKP when the wife of Abdullah Gül (Gül was the AKP’s presidential candidate) was attacked by the more vehement secularists for wearing a headscarf. Bahçeli, who by now had skilfully gained back his parliamentary representation and then some (with over 14% of the vote and 71 seats) used his influence to defend Gül and his wife and gain the AKP another victory – Gül became president. In 2013 he helped the AKP overturn the headscarf ban which had once been a lynchpin of Kemalist policy in suppressing Islam in Turkey. In 2015 his party helped the AKP to elect their chosen parliamentary speaker.
In 2016 his party firmly stood with the government in repelling the coup attempt in the streets as per his instructions. Bahçeli and the leaders of other political parties later joined Erdoğan in a mass post-coup rally and eulogise those killed at the hands of the plotters. A year later he got his party to back a ‘yes’ vote in the 2017 referendum on the granting of executive powers to the president. The referendum narrowly past and Erdoğan is now the first executive president in the history of the Turkish state.
His pragmatism in the rise of Turkey’s “Islamist” politics becomes all the more clear in retrospect – while his party was once seen as strongly Kemalist, it’s hard to imagine an orthodox Kemalist defending a headscarfed woman as Bahçeli did. While his party is still Kemalist and secularist in the sense that it strongly defends the legacy of Atatürk and accepts secularism as the norm (much like the AKP) it was once inconceivable for a supposedly orthodox “Kemalist” to shrewdly dismantle aspects of Kemalism as Bahçeli has craftily done.
Bahçeli has skilfully readjusted his party to cope with the rise of “Islamist” politics. The party has not only supported the rights of Muslim women to wear headscarves but has tried to present itself as an “Islamic” party as well as a nationalist one. Bahçeli himself has cynically presented himself as a Muslim, often citing Allah (God) in his tweets, speeches and writings. It’s a testimony to how times have changed that Bahçeli has embraced this pragmatism, given that Atatürk was an atheist who hated religion in general.*
Bahçeli has kept his party relevant by leading it away from many of the Kemalist principles it claims to uphold. One almost wonders if his “strange” speech style and unpredictable political maneuvers have been something of a facade to induce mockery from his opponents and thus distract them from his cunning political instincts.
His ability to balance the interests of the state and his alliance with the AKP is not to be played down; in fact, it’s said by some observers that Bahçeli personifies the interests of the increasingly pragmatic secular state, while Erdoğan personifies the will of the people. “The most notable man of the Turkish establishment,” is how political analyst Osman Bostan summed up Bahçeli.
“When we say Devlet Bahçeli (‘devlet’ coincidentally means ‘state’ in Turkish), we mean the state; when we say Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we mean the people,” – Ahmet Tarik Celenk, Turkish political analyst
After having helped the AKP time and time again, many regard the MHP as a component of the AKP’s power base that should almost be taken for granted. Some have even taken to calling it “the AKP’s lifeline”.
This analysis is partially true. While he has committed his party to an alliance with the AKP, he hasn’t made his party inseparable from it. He is not as indebted to Erdoğan as Erdoğan is to him. The strategy of having the MHP, AKP and BPP run separate parliamentary campaigns stopped his party from being swallowed up by the AKP and enabled it to retain its independence. This gives it leverage – a huge amount of leverage. Since the AKP lost its parliamentary supermajority in the 2018 election (falling from 317/550 seats to some 295) it is hugely dependant on the votes of the 49 MHP MPs to pass legislation and run a functioning government*. Thus his party is not ‘part of’ Erdoğan’s power base, rather it is a close key ally of that base. An ally Erdoğan is in great need of.
Bahçeli has made his independence known on multiple occasions to remind Erdoğan that his support is not to be taken for granted – he has kept up occasional criticisms of the AKP and compromised little on his agenda. In 2014 he fiercely condemned Erdoğan’s attempt to gain more power. Erdoğan knows he can’t afford to annoy his newfound electoral partner, who on the surface seems the weaker of the two but in reality commands a huge advantage. This has been the MHP’s strategy on-and-off for years – work with the AKP on some issues while offering a steady stream of criticisms to remind them that any backing is not to be taken for granted. It works.
This leverage means we can expect a more militant approach by Erdoğan to both foreign and domestic policy alike – Bahçeli is a Euroskeptic and deeply mistrustful of America (as are 79% of Turks after its uncooperative stance in Syria and arming of the PKK). He will no doubt attempt to push Turkish policy towards a more uncompromising, nationalistic stance vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Bahçeli has a firm vision. He will want his ideals implemented and will no doubt play on his leverage to attain those goals. He is already pushing for a general amnesty which notoriously includes inmates accused of ties to the Turkish mafia.
Bahçeli has often been written off as a minor player by those who fail to understand the importance of a long-term vision. All the while he has been meticulously building a power base and playing the AKP off against other parties to get what he wants.
The victory of Turkey’s first executive president may not have been possible without its most successful kingmaker.
*This is a common feature of Turkish politics; all the mainstream parties adhere to secularism either due to pragmatism or genuine conviction, in part due to the raising of Turks in a secular education system and in part owing to it being forbidden to criticise Atatürk or his legacy. Thus what would be seen as secular in one part of the world is seen as “Islamist” in Turkey.
*Ataturk presented himself to the public as a Muslim, yet rejected many aspects of the faith and claimed he wished all religions in general were “at the bottom of the sea”.