Turkey’s ruling party rekindles electoral alliance with far right

Despite the MHP’s support, the choice of candidates will be an important factor for the ruling party.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Volte-face. Devlet Bahceli, Leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) speaks to reporters in Ankara, last June. (AFP)
Volte-face. Devlet Bahceli, Leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) speaks to reporters in Ankara, last June. (AFP)

Devlet Bahceli, the chairman of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), declared in October that there could be no repeat of his electoral pact with the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in next year’s local elections. However, a month later, Bahceli performed a 180-degree turn and the alliance is back on.

Speaking to his party in October, Bahceli was scathing in his assessment of the AKP, which the MHP helped win a parliamentary majority and the presidential vote last June.

The MHP, said Bahceli, had had enough of the AKP’s patronising behaviour and dishonesty and was prepared to “cut the umbilical cord” tying the parties together and run its own candidates under its own banner in local elections.

One sticking point, he said, was the AKP’s refusal to accept MHP’s proposal for a general amnesty, which would see the release of ultranationalists with links to organised crime. Another issue was the AKP’s resistance to a ruling by the Council of State that called for the reinstatement of the student oath, a pledge expressing key tenets of Turkish nationalism that the ruling party took out of schools in 2013.

On the same day Bahceli lambasted his alliance partners, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there would be no release of what he called the MHP’s drug barons, before accusing Bahceli of racism for his views on the student oath.

Oh, how times change. One month after what looked very much like the end of the alliance, all has apparently been forgiven.

Erdogan and Bahceli met recently and declared a renewal of the electoral deal. Days later, as the AKP announced 40 mayoral candidates, Bahceli said his party would not run candidates for mayor in Ankara, Istanbul or Izmir and would throw its weight behind the AKP.

What caused the U-turn? Talk in political circles suggests the sudden change was spurred by polling results. The steep decline in AKP support could threaten the party’s hold over the key municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara.

As for the MHP, although the party seems to have maintained the 11% it received in the general elections, surveys confirmed that it was unlikely to win any municipal elections, even in constituencies it holds, such as the cities of Adana, Mersin, Manisa and Isparta.

Thus, one month after their acrimonious split, the two parties found they have no choice but to remain together. They realised that facing voters alone could result in losses significant enough to destabilise the government.

The AKP’s and MHP’s sense that their falling out had been a mistake was likely sharpened when they saw how opposition parties reacted. The secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) began talks with the nationalist Iyi Party and Islamist Saadet Party to repeat the alliance they had formed in the 2018 elections.

While a formal alliance may not be in the cards, contact between the CHP and pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has continued, with the CHP looking to secure the support of Kurdish voters in Turkey’s major municipalities, including Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Adana, Mersin and Antalya.

The nationalists at the Iyi Party would not countenance the HDP formally joining the alliance but HDP Co-Chairman Sezai Temelli indicated his party would assess CHP’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul and might refrain from running in the election to avoid splitting the opposition vote in the country’s most important municipality.

Meanwhile, HDP Co-Chairwoman Pervin Buldan, speaking at an event for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, described the 2019 local elections as having the significance of a referendum on the rule of the AKP — a party, she said, under whose watch 5,000 HDP members had been jailed.

Buldan called on the HDP to persevere in the face of severe repression and said the party was ready to cooperate with parties in south-eastern Turkey’s Kurdish regions and in its western regions to stand against the AKP and MHP. It is possible to read her comments as a declaration of support for the alliance formed by the CHP, Iyi and Saadet.

These seem to be positive developments for the CHP but, if it is to turn them into a decisive advantage, it will have to choose candidates that all those parties’ voters can get behind.

The AKP revealed a slew of mayoral candidates after exhaustive surveying but Erdogan at the last minute pulled the three big-name candidates he had reportedly lined up for Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The president could well be waiting for the opposition to make a move and present its candidates for these cities before choosing the best names to counter them.

Despite the MHP’s support, the choice of candidates will be an important factor for the ruling party. It will be difficult for an AKP candidate to win the full support of MHP voters in the three biggest cities. This explains why Erdogan appears in the hunt for candidates likely to attract votes from other social groups. The loss of Ankara or Istanbul could lead to shock waves across Turkish politics, particularly within the AKP, bringing to light internal disputes and schisms.

Bahceli, too, is reportedly under pressure from his party and voter base, having taken a risk by deferring to Erdogan and refraining from running candidates in the three largest cities, after similarly stepping aside in the June elections.

If after a move that can be considered withdrawing from the elections, the opposition has success in those cities, which account for one-third of Turkish voters, Bahceli’s position as MHP leader is likely to be attacked from within the party.

The same may be true for CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who reportedly beat back a party rebellion after the party’s forgettable performance in the parliamentary elections. For many, the vote next March is Kilicdaroglu’s last chance.