Support For Erdogan In Referendum Splits Turkey’s Nationalists

Meral Aksener (C), former Turkish interior minister and a lawmaker of Turkey's right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), stands at a security barrier as police seal off a hotel, preventing dissidents from holding a party congress, in Ankara on May 15, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

Turkish society is bitterly divided. Polarization cleavage is so deep that it is evident in every walks of life in Turkey. Social discord did not only repel groups with different ideologies to polar opposites. It also divided political parties.

The Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP, is facing an existential crisis. Exit doors were wide open for incumbent leader Devlet Bahceli just last year. Through political maneuvers and awkward legal battles, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saved Mr. Bahceli against an insurgent group. Mr. Bahceli, supposedly an opposition leader, now owes the president.

Mr. Bahceli’s emerging opponent, Meral Aksener, often referred as Turkish Marine Le Pen fared much better in every single poll. The party’s charismatic lawmakers followed her path, and challenged Mr. Bahceli’s unquestioned rule spanning to two decades. Although Mr. Bahceli secured his seat as the MHP’s leader, a co-opted opposition figure, Ms. Aksener’s lieutenants are not silent.

It was MHP’s support to a controversial constitutional bill in Parliament that allowed Mr. Erdogan to announce a referendum. But will MHP’s electorate remain loyal to their leaders?

The political fallout from the upcoming public vote over giving vast powers to Mr. Erdogan has shattered the roots of Turkey’s largest nationalist party, plunging it into a prolonged turmoil.

Mr. Bahceli’s unexpected turnaround from longstanding objection to the presidential system to the backing of the proposed bill sent rippling waves across the party base around Turkey. Users on the social media still replay his harsh words against Mr. Erdogan for the proposed presidential system from the past. It has opened cracks and bitter divide within the party ranks, with ramifications for the outcome of the vote as the country waded into referendum wilderness. With that vote, the country stands on the brink of momentous, historic change.

Divided We Stand

On Saturday, Mr. Bahceli convened party leadership to discuss his strategy to sell the party’s policy change and persuade both public and internal dissidents to cast ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. In a retreat in the central province of Konya, senior party members brainstormed different policy options to deal with mounting intra-party opposition and to polish its standing with a new public relations campaign.

Speaking to party members, Mr. Bahceli presented his case for the support of the vote, which will vastly expand the powers of presidential office in a way many interpret as removal of last vestiges of separation of powers. He ascribed to a strong nationalist credo, underscored the need for national unity at a time of tumult and enduring challenges.

“We took an oath for our country and this oath was done once. For us oaths exist so as to sacrifice our lives for the sake of it when it is needed. Oath is Turkey’s rights and interests,” he said in a speech laced with populist sentiments and unrefined jingoism. “Oath is the unity of the Turkish nation and its strong will. It’s ideal for living independent.”

For him, a ‘Yes’ vote will be an approval for stability and re-affirmation of his party’s commitment to post-coup political unity initiated by President Erdogan. He argues that the new system will allow them to cope with difficulties and multiple threats against the country. Mr. Bahceli even threatened naysayers with dark scenarios and said the rejection of the bill will spark chaos in Turkey.

His discourse echoed similar fear-mongering and rabble-rousing of the government members. Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said violence will wreak havoc in Turkey if ‘No’ prevails in the popular vote, a statement that was interpreted as a veiled threat. Couple days before that, crime lord Sedat Peker, an ultranationalist figure, also threatened those who cast no vote in the ballots. 

Mr. Bahceli’s moribund speech suffered from internal contradictions when he said the vote will strengthen the separation of powers, embolden Parliament with a more effective check on presidential office, despite the overwhelming evidence that shows the opposite.

“On April 16 we say ‘Yes.’ … We will ensure the independence of courts, we will provide opportunities to 18-year-old youth, we will support 600 lawmakers of a growing Turkey,” the MHP leader said.

“We will strengthen the parliamentary supervision functions, we will draw clear lines on separation of powers, we will make president accountable, we will end the confusion.”

“Every ‘Yes’ is an oath for us. ‘Yes’ for the nation, ‘Yes’ for the state, ‘Yes’ for the Republic and ‘Yes’ for Turkey,” he concluded his fire-and-brimstone nationalist sermon in a pompous way to build an argument for the ‘Yes’ vote.

Only months ago, Mr. Bahceli delivered a stunning rebuke to Mr. Erdogan’s long-held aspiration for a transition to the presidential system.

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan-style presidency is the prescription for Turkey’s division, death sentence for its democracy, a warrant for one-man dictatorship. A permit for corruption and theft,” he then said last year. To protect his political skin from re-opening of now killed corruption investigation, Mr. Bahceli went on, Mr. Erdogan is left only with one option: To establish a dictatorship to permanently bury the corruption files.

MHP Base v MHP Leadership

On the same day, titans of intra-party opposition whose insurgency last year came closer to end Mr. Bahceli’s two-decade hold on the party, also gathered together in the western province of Canakkale to craft a strategy. Ms. Aksener, a senior female party figure who served as Interior Minister in late 1990s, last year unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Bahceli’s leadership.

Mr. Erdogan intervened to save an unpopular Bahceli, with a pliant court in Ankara blocked a party congress to elect a new leader, condemning anti-Bahceli camp’s efforts to failure. Mr. Bahceli who had been until last October an avowed opponent of the presidential system has courted to Mr. Erdogan’s position, adopted a benign language to curry the president’s favor and grace.

The metamorphosis of MHP from a formidable opposition party into a junior ally of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is also the story of a personal political odyssey of Mr. Bahceli who now seems to have no scruples for openly declaring allegiance to the president. Neither ever-growing rebellion from denizens of the nationalist establishment nor non-MHP people’s loath over his late change seem to bother him or sway his agenda.

In Canakkale on Saturday, Ms. Aksener, a rising popular figure of the nationalist grassroots, waded into heated political debate, expressing her unyielding opposition to constitutional change by deeming it as a break with the republic.

The meeting of anti-Bahceli MHP figures got off to a tough start as they went through a series of technical problems. Despite earlier booking, the hotel first refused to provide conference hall for a group of 1,000 MHP members for the meeting. After facing threats of financial boycott from customers, the hotel managers backpedaled, but cut off electricity of the hall.

Embattled Aksener spoke with a megaphone under phone lights, and called on nationalist brethren to remain loyal to principles of the Republic. “Let prime minister call those who vote ‘No’ terrorists, they will not be able to stop us from our path,” she challenged the AKP government which declares naysayers as terrorists in a psychological campaign to intimidate opponents.

“I do not afraid as a woman, don’t you feel shame to fear as a man?” she slammed subdued nationalists. Her main takeaway was growing authoritarianism and new power grab of the president whom he accuses of selling country’s most valuable national companies at ridiculous prices, transfer of major firms to government-run Sovereign Fund whose ambiguous structure has become a source of bitter controversy and public debate.

She reminded the president of his own past when he was alone and rejected by the country’s establishment from entering cities in various parts of Turkey in late 1990s. Ms. Aksener accused Mr. Erdogan of clinging to the same authoritarian methods from which he himself suffered in the past.

On what the executive presidency brings to Turkey, she portrayed the AKP’s proposal as a harbinger of an authoritarian system.

“He [President Erdogan] will hold meetings with provincial heads [of his party], and then will appoint rectors, members of [Supreme Council of Prosecutors and Judges], and form list of lawmakers, appoint members of the Constitutional Court,” she fulminated in indignation. “No, there can be no such a president. It is impossible to accept such a thing, it is wrong, I hope it will not happen,” she expressed her dismay. “Eighty million times no,” she said with strong conviction.

What is unclear for the moment is that how many of MHP voters will support Mr. Erdogan’s bid. The split of nationalist votes bodes ill for the president who plans to muster all available votes among center-right, Islamists and nationalist segments of society for his cause.

The AKP lost single-party majority in 2015 June elections and Mr. Erdogan’s lieutenants blamed the peace talks with Kurds. Since then, the crackdown on Kurds only escalated. Leaders and a dozen lawmakers of the pro-Kurdish party HDP are currently in prison. Observers believe that Mr. Erdogan has to keep up clamping down on Kurdish media, politics and civil society to whip up nationalist sentiments and secure nationalist votes in April referendum.

Hundreds of party officials parted their ways with the MHP after adopting AKP line and endorsing Mr. Erdogan. During the parliamentary vote to pass the constitutional reform bill, half of the MHP voters did not back the proposal, revealing the scale of division within the party. MHP has 39 seats in Parliament.

In a televised comment on TGRT Haber last week, former MHP official Musavat Dervisoglu said more than 75 percent of MHP voters will oppose the constitutional change in the referendum slated for April 16. He said the majority of the party base is against holding referendum under the state of emergency and tumultuous conditions in Turkey. He even claimed that many MHP figures from Mr. Bahceli’s inner circle will also say ‘No’ in April vote.

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