With illness of nationalist ally, Erdogan faces challenges as he strives to keep power

The exit from politics of key ally Devlet Bahceli, long-time leader of the ultra-nationalist, extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party, is the last thing Erdogan needs.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Devlet Bahceli, leader of Nationalist Movement Party, talk during an election rally in Ankara, March 23. (Reuters)
Crucial boost. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Devlet Bahceli, leader of Nationalist Movement Party, talk during an election rally in Ankara, March 23. (Reuters)

As the Turkish parliament convened October 1, it found itself not only a rubber stamp in the service of the president, but also with an agenda screaming “crisis.”

On top of unresolved issues, there was another key development on the eve of parliament’s opening ceremony: Devlet Bahceli, long-time leader of the ultra-nationalist, extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was unable to attend. He had been taken to hospital and an official statement said he had “heart problems.”

Since then, rumours have increased. Sources said the 71-year-old chief “grey wolf” — a mythological symbol of Turkish ultra-nationalists — was in a grave state of health. Even if he was discharged from hospital, he would no longer be able to conduct political business. If so, it means his party, which he has led unchallenged since 1997, would be dragged into serious disarray.

This possibility is one of the last things that Erdogan, politically squeezed into a corner, needs.

Bahceli has been the help that went to Erdogan’s rescue following the general elections in 2018.

Bahceli supported the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), forming a coalition symbolising the synthesis of nationalism and Islamism. It maintains a broad base in parliament — decisive in the continuity of the oppressive, anti-Western and adventurist policies Ankara stands for.

Bahceli’s health may shatter the ground on which Erdogan stands. It may explain why the Turkish president reached out to the minor part of opposition alliance, the Iyi Party.

Iyi, an offshoot of Bahceli’s MHP, is led by Meral Aksener, who, together with some ultra-nationalists, represents a discontent with the old “grey wolf’s” way of dominating politics. Sources said secret contacts between Erdogan and some Iyi Party figures ended in a handshake about the latter joining the ruling coalition in January 2020 at the latest.

This prospect may be a game changer — at least Erdogan hopes so. There are several reasons for his seemingly endless search to secure continuity in power. The bleeding of the AKP is unstoppable — more than four pollsters indicate that its voter support has fallen to 30-35%, an all-time low.

In terms of the consequences of the economic crisis, 2020 seems to be decisive for Turkish politics, which keeps Erdogan busy calculating options.

Certainly, he wants to stick to his pledge that he will remain at the “super-presidential” post, when Turkey celebrates its centennial in 2023. That is also the year of the next general elections.

Erdogan knows that none of the political parties’ deputies want a snap election. Not only is the burden of crisis extremely heavy for the winner but the main reason for their reluctance is the lucrative salaries deputies receive and four more years in parliamentary seats offer enough comfort.

The president’s primary option, therefore, is to engineer politics within the given political landscape, using the weaknesses, while avoiding early elections. For this he must continue to take the MHP, with or without Bahceli, for granted, and consolidate the Nationalist-Islamist bloc by offering carrots to the Iyi Party.

His calculation is not only limited to avoiding early elections but also winning the presidential race in 2023. There, he faces an even greater challenge. Polls suggest that the AKP-MHP alliance’s cumulative votes have fallen to less than 50%, which is crucial for a repeat victory.

The second point in the engineering plan of Erdogan is to gain enough seats in parliament to lower the threshold for the next presidential elections to more than 40%. For this, he would certainly need 400 seats in parliament for an amendment of the constitution. The AKP-MHP bloc currently has 340.

The addition of Iyi to the alliance would move the number to 380 — enough only for taking the amendment to a referendum. He is short of 20 seats, which is surely a challenge.

Beyond this, the uncertainties leave more questions than answers. For example: Does the constitution allow Erdogan to be elected for a third time? The wording is so vague that it already prepares for a battlefield.

This much is clear: With Iyi striking a deal with the AKP, the opposition bloc’s Nation Alliance has come to an end.

What complicates the picture of the crisis-ridden country is the apparent slowness, bordering on passivity, of the two main actors in politics: The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), remains in limbo; while half-supporting Erdogan’s failed Syria policy, it is keeping a distance to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose voter base was a game changer in this year’s local elections, meaning a defeat for Erdogan.

While the CHP has opted for a wait-and-see-until-2023 policy of avoiding snap elections and staying clear of the HDP, former President Abdullah Gul and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan are squandering valuable time. A recent undisclosed poll gives enough clues of the latter duo losing momentum. The more they wait to announce a party, the more votes they seem to lose.

”Everything will be just fine” was the slogan on which Erdogan last spring lost control of six greater municipalities. The slogan’s effectiveness is waning but the opposition is rudderless, giving Turkey’s autocrat again manoeuvring room to stage a survival game anew.

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