Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been at the forefront of Turkish politics for more than 15 years, but since an electoral alliance between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in 2017, Erdoğan seems politically vulnerable. In view of the fact that Turkey’s economy is facing currency and debt crises and with support for the ruling party dwindling, Erdoğan’s political fate rests largely in the hands of the MHP. The ultranationalist party is known to have encouraged Erdoğan to take a harsh stance on minority rights, especially against Kurds and the West.
The AKP has ruled Turkey as a single-party government since 2002, although the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years in June 2015 and then regained the majority in a repeated parliamentary election in November of the same year. This, however, required Erdoğan to form an electoral alliance with the MHP to pass a constitutional referendum to replace the existing parliamentary system of governance with an executive presidency. With the help of the MHP, Erdoğan secured a narrow victory in the April 2017 referendum that approved the AKP and MHP’s 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution. The referendum removed the office of prime minister, replacing it with an executive presidency. This significantly increased Erdoğan’s presidential powers, granting him a greater degree of control over appointments to the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK). The referendum also ensured that Erdoğan’s rule could extend until 2028. Being in an electoral alliance with Erdoğan strengthened the MHP’s role in the bureaucracy.
The AKP and MHP recently agreed to lower the election threshold from 10 percent to 7 percent. Political analysts suspect that with the MHP losing votes, the party now feels more confident of securing its presence in parliament during the next general election in 2023.
Seven Kurdish parties have been closed down since 1990, while two were voluntarily dissolved. The MHP accuses Kurdish parties of helping the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed group that has been fighting against the Turkish state since 1984 with an intent to form an independent or autonomous Kurdish state in the Kurdish-majority southeastern part of Turkey. Over the last three decades, the MHP has at every opportunity called for the closure of Kurdish parties. The MHP pushed Erdoğan into ending the Kurdish peace process in 2015, calling for the closure of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) following the Suruç attack, a suicide bombing that killed 34 people in the predominantly Kurdish town of Suruç near the border with Syria. This was despite the fact that then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had said there was a high probability the attack was caused by an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide bomber. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli accused the HDP of sparking the Kobani protests, which took place between Oct. 6 and 8, 2014, causing the deaths of dozens of people, and has since then repeatedly called for the closure of the HDP. Bahçeli has also accused the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the İYİ (Good) Party of “aiding and harboring terrorists” as these parties have opposed the closure of the HDP.
The MHP not only seeks and encourages a military solution to the Kurdish issue but has also harshly criticized Turkey’s opening to Armenia in 2014. The Armenian issue has remained highly sensitive since the Ottoman Empire deported its Armenian citizens in 1915-1916 reportedly on account of them being saboteurs and pro-Russian. The Armenian diaspora claims that it was a genocide in which 1.5 million people died. Turkish officials accept that around 300,000 Armenians died during the mass deportation but push back against claims that it was a systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian population. In 2014 Erdoğan conveyed condolences to the grandchildren of Armenians killed in World War I to improve relations with neighboring Armenia. Bahçeli described Erdoğan’s move as “an apology for genocide” and “non-national.”
The MHP leader also opposes a one-state solution for Cyprus and praised Erdoğan’s plans to build a presidential complex in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), which is recognized only by Ankara, whereas the Greek Cypriot administration is an EU member and recognized internationally. Following Erdoğan’s Cyprus visit in July, Bahçeli mentioned that Erdoğan’s construction plan is the first step in forming an independent Turkish state on the island and further said a “partnership state” with Greek Cypriots on the island is impossible. Cyprus has remained divided into Greek and Turkish zones since the Turkish military established control over the northern part of the island in 1974.
Uninterested in Turkey’s reconciliation with Kurds and non-Muslim minorities, Bahçeli is also critical of main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for saying the HDP is key to solving Turkey’s “Kurdish issue.” The HDP is the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament and denies any links to PKK militants. One can gauge the caliber of Bahçeli, who openly calls Turkey’s most notorious mafia boss, Alaattin Çakıcı, who was convicted and served time on multiple charges, ranging from organized crime to drug trafficking and including ordering the killing of his wife, as his long-time comrade. Bahçeli persuaded Erdoğan to release him from prison as part of an amnesty to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. According to a tweet by Kılıçdaroğlu’s lawyer, Celal Eren Çelik, on Monday, a Turkish court sentenced Çakıcı to one year, eight months for insulting and threatening the CHP leader.
The MHP is not only responsible for pushing Erdoğan’s AKP to pursue oppressive policies towards minorities in the country but is also linked to Turkish nationalist groups that target anyone critical of Turkey abroad. The “Grey Wolves,” as they are called, is an organization regarded as the militant wing of the MHP and were active in the streets in Turkey against leftists during the 1970s and 1980s. The group has become increasingly active in many European cities. The French government in November of last year outlawed the Grey Wolves for inciting hate speech as well as violence in France. The European Parliament urged the European Union to consider classifying the Grey Wolves as a terrorist group.
Prominent Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin most precisely summarized the power of Bahçeli, saying that “not even President Tayyip Erdoğan, who is the sole executive authority in the country, is always able to get exactly what he wants. But Bahçeli, somehow, can.” It seems Erdoğan has become increasingly dependent on Bahçeli, the main source of support for the ruling AKP’s ultranationalist domestic and foreign policy.