Nationalists prepare to push Turkey further to the right
ISTANBUL - A surprise result in Turkey’s parliamentary elections has given a nationalist party that views the West with suspicion and calls for a more aggressive stance by Ankara in Syria and Iraq the opportunity to push the country’s policies to the right.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) surpassed expectations with a strong showing and claimed 11.1% of the vote, giving it 49 deputies in Ankara. Almost all polls had predicted the MHP, which won 11.9% in the 2015 election, would receive a thrashing at the ballot box this time.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a new 5-year term but his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will need the MHP’s help to pass legislation because it lost its parliamentary majority.
MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said his party’s support for the AKP will not be unconditional but he was careful not to anger the much bigger AKP, which has 295 lawmakers in the 600-seat parliament. Bahceli fired MHP Deputy Chairman Sefer Aycan after Aycan had “saved Erdogan” and that parliament would do what the MHP wanted.
Ahmet Kasim Han, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said both parties benefited from a sense of insecurity among voters. “On the political marketplace, the MHP and the AKP sold the argument that Turkey was under mortal threat, and anxious voters bought it especially from the MHP, seen as the original seller,” Han said.
Bahceli, 70, has led the MHP since 1997. He served as a deputy prime minister in a coalition government from 1999-2002 but has had no government office since. Reports said Bahceli ruled out joining the Erdogan government, preferring to stay in parliament.
The MHP leader strongly supported Turkey’s military interventions in Syria and called on the army to “plant the flag” on top of the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, 150km south of the Turkish border, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group fighting the Turkish state since 1984, has its headquarters.
Analysts said the MHP was expected to call for a harder line by Ankara in Turkey’s conflict of interests with the United States in Syria, where Washington has been backing Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered the PKK’s Syrian offshoot and a terrorist organisation by Ankara.
In a telephone call with Erdogan to congratulate him on his election win, US President Donald Trump agreed with his Turkish counterpart to follow through on a plan to ensure the YPG’s withdrawal from Manbij, a strategically important city in northern Syria, Erdogan’s office said.
The matter of Manbij is sensitive because the YPG took the town from the Islamic State with US help two years ago. Ankara said its troops would patrol Manbij after the YPG leaves but the Kurdish fighters said they would not accept Turkish soldiers in the city.
For all the MHP’s new-found energy, Bahceli will try to avoid pressing Erdogan for cross-border operations in Syria or Iraq that could end in failure or risk cooperation between the AKP and the MHP, Han said.
At the same time, Bahceli is acutely aware of the mood at the MHP grassroots and can be expected to become more radical if he thinks it helps him. “He knows what can be done and what can’t,” Han said about the MHP leader, “but we can’t foresee what he will do if he feels squeezed domestically.”