Turkish Nationalist Party at a Turning Point: Consequences for Turkish Politics

  • Mujge Kucukkeles

Turkish politics reveals a number of features of a dominant-party system. 

For the last 14 years, the ruling AK Party has come out of all general elections as a winner and ran only single-party governments since 2002. The opposition has been weak and divided along ethnic and social identity lines. At the opposite poles of Turkey’s opposition political spectrum stand a far right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and a pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). Somewhere closer to the middle lies a social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) challenged by its long-term inability to increase votes past the 25 percent margin. Just like the Turkish society, parties are overly polarized and competition between them is identity-based, benefiting the ruling AK Party which has the largest share of the electorate.

However, a particular political phenomenon has also contributed greatly to AK Party’s dominance: an absence of a credible center right party in Turkey. After coming to power in 2002, AK Party successfully incorporated different ideologies and voters within its support, including the center right, Islamist and nationalist currents. As the party grew in confidence and power, it has either absorbed potential rival parties or added prominent figures from other parties with a special appeal to center right voters. The outcome of this was the de facto disappearance of the center right parties from the Turkish political scene. However, recent developments inside the aforementioned MHP could lead to certain changes. 

Following the short-lived failure to win the single-party majority after general elections in June 2015, AK Party lead unsuccessful government coalition talks and ultimately pushed for the repeat, snap elections which finally happened on November 1, 2015. This time, AK Party received 49 percent of the votes and regained parliamentary majority to form another single-party government. The biggest loser of the November elections was undoubtedly MHP. The votes of the party decreased from 16 percent in June to 12 percent in November, giving the party only 40 seats in the Parliament – a sharp drop from 80 in June. Highly disappointed by MHP chairman’s (Devlet Bahceli) non-conciliatory approach towards both the AK Party and the opposition during the coalition talks, many MHP voters turned to AK Party, a party of the second natural choice for the nationalist core. Different signs prior to the elections were indicating this was coming for MHP.  For example, as shown by IRI Turkey’s October 2015 National Public Opinion Survey, MHP voters were the least enthusiastic of all the voters to go to the polls in November. Under 80 percent of MHP voters said they would surely or probably vote, while this was around and over 90 percent for the other three major parties.

MHP’s failure at the ballot box triggered internal unrest in the party with some prominent members calling on the leadership to take the party to an extraordinary congress where new leadership prospects could be nominated. Party leadership ruled out any possibility for the congress before the ordinary one, scheduled to take place in March 2018, would happen. Unable to get the party to hold an extraordinary session, internal opposition took the issue to the court. On April 8, an Ankara court ruled that the party should hold an extraordinary congress, and appointed a committee of trustees to regulate the process. Meanwhile, the MHP leadership applied to the Supreme Court of Appeals to overturn the court’s decision. It is yet to be seen what and when the Court of Appeals will decide; however, the congress proceedings will continue.

After the court’s decision, committee of trustees set the date for extraordinary congress on May 15th. If held as planned, it is highly likely that the intra-party opposition will see a victory. Opposition consists of very prominent figures of Turkish politics such as Meral Aksaner, Sinan Ogan, Umit Ozdag and Koray Aydin, who all declared their candidacies for the new party leader. All of the figures might have somewhat different approaches in respect to the party’s future role, but they all agree on the need for restructuring MHP into a party able to offer concrete policies. They criticize the current leadership for locking the party in a solely identity-driven issues, which they see as an obstacle preventing the party to open up to the broader interests of the country as a whole. Among all candidates, Meral Aksener is viewed as the best positioned one for the next leader of the party. A former Minister of Interior Affairs of the 1990s coalition government, Aksener is coming from the center-right tradition. Opinion polls conducted by Metropoll Research Company in April 2016 suggest that if elected as the party chair, Aksener could help MHP increase its votes up to 20 percent in the next general elections. Whether this is realistic is yet to be seen, but Aksener’s candidacy has already created excitement among a big part of the electorate.

Developments within MHP could also significantly affect the overall political course the party would take. Over the last decade, MHP moved to a somewhat reactionary position with a political ideology that blends Turkish nationalism with a strong Islamist identity. This identity mainly appealed to the rural and conservative Turkish voters in central Anatolia. Party’s inability to offer concrete policy solutions to economic and social problems of the country, nevertheless, restricted its ability to widen its voter base. As a result, MHP appeared to be a party content with its position in the opposition, with its votes hovering between 10 and 15 percent of support. AK Party’s recent shift to a nationalistic discourse, on the other hand, blurred the differences with MHP, making MHP look redundant to a certain portion of the nationalistic core.  However, most of MHP’s intra-party opposition figures represent urban forms of nationalism, reconciling the conservative values in the society with a secular nature of the state. They criticize the level of polarization in the society and propose to develop a new concept of nationalism that produces real solutions to people’s immediate problems. The extent of party’s inclination to the center-right, of course, depends on who will become the new chair. Given her background, Meral Aksener has the most potential of all candidates to move the party towards the center-right of the political spectrum.

Moreover, the potential change inside MHP or a lack of thereof could have significant implications on Turkish politics overall. The idea of a new center right party in Turkey is most popular among the MHP support. According to the IRI National Public Opinion Survey conducted in January 2016, 21 percent of the total electorate thinks there is a need for a center right party in Turkey, among which 35 percent are MHP voters. Additionally, 37 percent of the MHP voters say they would consider voting for that new party. This shows the level of frustration among the MHP support with the current management of the party; these voters signal that if the change does not come from within the party, they could consider a shift to a hypothetical new center right party. On the other hand, the appeal of a potentially new MHP goes beyond the MHP voters alone. Given that the MHP is leading as the party of the second choice across the Turkish voter spectrum, the new MHP could seize back the votes it lost in previous elections. This could not only change the power dynamics in the center-right politics, which is currently dominated by the AK Party, but also pressure the main opposition CHP to speed up its transformation to a social democrat party as an alternative to this new center-right politics. It is yet to be seen which way the pendulum will swing, but one thing is already indicative: the dynamic in and around MHP could very well prove to be the long-awaited agent of change in Turkish politics.

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