Avni Ozgurel, a prominent nationalist analyst, who has long been around Bahceli’s power circles, thinks AK Party-MHP alliance will turn into political unity after the elections.
Turkey will hold early parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24. Many analysts view the upcoming elections as crucial for the country’s political prospects.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is again the heavy favourite for the presidency. Under his leadership, the AK Party has not lost a single election since 2002, with Erdogan himself having also not lost any election since he won the mayorship of Istanbul in 1994.
Since mid-2015, however, the country has faced multiple issues, ranging from PKK attacks to unearthing the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation's (FETO) infiltration of state institutions. On July 15, 2016, Turkey also had to deal with a coup attempt against the country’s democratically elected government that was unsuccessful after ordinary Turkish citizens protested on the streets following Erdogan's call to mobilise.
The coup attempt also marked the beginning of a new political alliance between the AK Party and the nationalist opposition MHP, which strongly backed both Erdogan and the AK Party government on July 15.
The MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has given his unconditional support to Erdogan since July 15, and the Erdogan-Bahceli partnership has now turned into an alliance for the upcoming June elections.
In order to understand the dynamics of this alliance, and in particular Bahceli’s motivations to support Erdogan, we spoke to Avni Ozgurel, a prominent nationalist analyst and author, who's known for being close to Bahceli’s key political aides.
Ozgurel thinks the AK Party-MHP alliance is more than an election deal and will crystallize into political unity after the elections as both parties have a history of cooperation at crucial times.
Back in 2002, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, who was the deputy prime minister for the then-coalition government, called for early elections. The coalition government had been dissolved and the country went to the early elections. The AK Party won a landslide victory and without any interruption has stayed in power since then. How do you explain Bahceli’s move at the time?
Avni Ozgurel: Bahceli had powerful intuitions [about Turkey’s politics]. We can also judge that he has powerful sources of information. He recognised that Turkey was being dragged into an American trap at the time. He analysed the way Kemal Dervis, [who holds dual American and Turkish nationality], came to Turkey and suddenly became a deputy prime minister, [managing Turkey’s economics and exerting enormous influence on the triple coalition in the early 2000s.]
He was the first Turkish politician who recognised that the Dervis-led policies would drag Turkey into an internationally submissive political line. [Dervis was developing an economic policy under the IMF and World Bank's guidance, seen as kowtowing to Western influence.] As his coalition partners were defending a position against his better judgement, he made a crucial call for early elections in 2002 when he also knew that his party would be in a very difficult position.
The Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP), which were centre-right parties, could not pass the 10 percent election threshold necessary to contest an election in Turkey. [The MHP could not pass the election threshold either]. As such, the AK Party emerged from the elections victorious.
Bahceli was heavily criticised at the time, both inside and outside his party, on the grounds that his call for early elections, handed victory to the AK Party. But he did not care about those criticisms at all.
In 2002, he indeed forecasted that his party and his coalition partners could not pass the election threshold. When I asked about those criticisms at the time, he responded to me saying, “There is something good about the losses we suffered." It’s clear to me that he had already foreseen what would happen after the elections.
How do you see Bahceli’s relationship with the AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
AO: If we carefully study most of the Bahceli’s political moves and statements regarding Erdogan’s leadership, we can conclude that he has mostly opposed the personal attacks against Erdogan. He has opposed all the attempts to close down the AK Party and to imprison their leader. [In 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court rejected an appeal to close down the AK Party.] He attempted to block all of those attempts. Although he has voiced some criticism of the AK Party, he has always said closing down parties will not bring any concrete resolutions.
We have seen his approach during the e-memorandum. [In 2007, the Turkish military released a written statement on its website which amounted to a military intervention to the country’s democratically elected government. The AK Party government rejected the e-memorandum and warned the military not to intervene in the country’s politics.]
In 2007, Bahceli also opposed efforts to criticise AK Party’s presidential candidate Abdullah Gul. [Turkey’s harshly secularist establishment was against Gul’s election at the time on the grounds that his wife wears a headscarf. Bahceli criticised the e-memorandum which aimed to prevent an AK Party presidential candidate with a hijab-wearing wife from becoming president. In that sense, he helped the AK Party elect its presidential candidate in parliament.]
On July 15, we saw Bahceli become the first opposition leader to offer a strong support to Erdogan in the face of the coup attempt. What did the coup attempt represent in terms of the relationship between Erdogan and Bahceli?
AO: The July 15 coup attempt is a milestone for them. It is a milestone for both Turkey and Bahceli’s politics. After July 15, Bahceli withdrew all of his criticisms of Erdogan. If he still held onto any criticism, I am sure he would only tell him when they speak privately.
He recognised that the insurrection was a project to take over Turkey completely, and he saw it coming. He knew that FETO would attempt something like that. The way Bahceli saw it, if the coup had been successful, the country would have to face a profound crisis, one that called into question the country’s very survival.
The coup attempt aimed to take over the entire state apparatus and to control it. In Turkey, although some forces may have influence over individual state institutions, an attempt to bring the whole state structure under control is something completely different.
Bahceli made a move to determine the future of Turkish politics. Even without discussing any details with Erdogan, he told him that they are all together and that they will support him in the next five years. He made this statement without any bargaining with Erdogan, reflecting how unwavering Bahceli is and the way he acts without hesitation in the face of such a profound crisis.
In return, Erdogan and the AK Party have adapted their political positions to be in line with much of Bahceli’s rhetoric. They embraced most of his stances. The AK Party is not a political party which excludes nationalism, making the decision not so shocking. The party’s leadership has always had nationalistic sensitivities, shared with MHP.
We are now witnessing the formation of a political bloc [between the AK Party and the MHP]. But in the near future, we also see that Turkey’s political realities will make these two political movements merge together.
If Bahceli thinks both Erdogan and the AK Party are crucial for Turkey’s independent future, then, how will this view affect the prospects of the nationalist (Ulkucu: Idealist) movement he has led for more than 20 years?
AO: The Idealist [nationalist] movement represents a mission. It’s an emotional thing, and it will continue to exist as such. It will continue as a cultural movement, it won’t even exist as the youth of the MHP anymore. I think the MHP movement will be with the AK Party side by side and it will incrementally merge with the AK Party over time.
Just as in a Western democracy, the mainstream major parties have several wings. In Turkey, the MHP will be the nationalist wing of the AK Party.
As you might have heard, there are pundits still debating whether the MHP can pass the election threshold or not. I believe Bahceli is bored with this debate and thinks that the MHP should no longer worry about that kind of concerns. Although this threshold concern is not the major reason he has built this alliance with Erdogan, it is still one of the problems Bahceli currently has.
Out of the blue, someone emerged and challenged his authority, breaking up the party. [Ozgurel refers to Meral Aksener, a former MHP deputy and minister, who unsuccessfully opposed the Bahceli leadership in 2017. Aksener eventually established the IYI Party with some prominent members of the MHP. She is currently one of the presidential candidates].
It was a very distressing process for Bahceli [when Aksener sued the party leadership, which kicked out Aksener and her supporters from the party on the grounds that they are not acting in accordance with the party discipline].
After 16 years, once again Bahceli called for early elections. Why did he do so?
AO: It is fortunate, he did so. Why? I was thinking about his decision whilst I was listening to Donald Trump the other day, and it is becoming clear these guys [Americans and Israelis] want to pick a big war in the Middle East. They want to make Iran kneel down.
I am not saying that Iran is a good state. Turkey and Iran have always competed with each other in the Middle East. But right now Turkey and Iran have an alliance in Syria to end the conflict, attempting to bring peace there. [Iran and Turkey have been supporting the Russian-led Astana peace process against the US-led Geneva peace process]. The US and Israel have a definite objection to our alliance.
When the US administration brought forward sanctions against Iran and the countries which have deals with Iran, it is intending them for Turkey and Russia. Literally, the US makes us face a political dilemma regarding our NATO membership. If you are a NATO member, you should be siding with us and if you are not, let us know, the Americans implicitly say.
The NATO dilemma is the most important issue for us in the forthcoming period. After the elections, we can have a government which can deal with issues like this and produce concrete policies and implement them in a decisive fashion.
Then, are you saying that Bahceli’s main motivation to support Erdogan is for the sake of the state’s survival?
AO: Alparslan Turkes [Bahceli’s predecessor and the legendary founder of the MHP] has always seen the state as a decisive element. Prior to any decision-making, in Turkes’ mind, there had always been a state parenthesis. For him, the state carries a priority over any other concerns. He also believed that if the state makes mistakes, we should warn it.
After Turkes, Bahceli became the MHP leader with a belief that the most important and correct political choice is to act in accordance with the state’s reflections.