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Ankara (GPA) – Irreconcilable differences between the AKP and MHP have the potential to fracture Erdogan’s coalition in the upcoming Turkish local elections.
turkey local elections erdogan's coalition
Turkish President Recep Erdogan (L) and MHP President Devlet Bahceli
Image: Sputnik

With Turkish President Recep Erdogan unwilling to bend on some key issues, his legislative allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) continue to defect. The latest evidence of this tension between the MHP and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has come as the local elections approach in Turkey and the two parties have decided to go their separate ways and not run as a coalition or plan electoral strategy together.

Erdogan’s coalition cracks in Turkish local elections

With the Turkish local elections slated for March 31st of next year, the competition for votes is heating up as Erdogan and the AKP must now factor in a new opponent: their coalition partners in the MHP. The MHP and AKP first formed this coalition, known as the People’s Alliance, just this year in February as they prepped for elections originally scheduled for 2019 but then moved up to June 24th by the AKP (at the suggestion of MHP President Devlet Bahçeli in April).

Now it seems as the MHP and AKP head into their second election together, the coalition seems to be on the brink of collapse. While the MHP and AKP share many common interests, as both parties are fiercely nationalist, this most recent crack in the People’s Alliance is being caused by two issues that are apparently fairly important to Bahceli and the MHP.

Related: Turkey Election: Erdogan Remains President, AKP/MHP Hold Parliament

The first issue that is being debated between Bahceli and Erdogan is the reinstatement of the Student Oath, which was recited by Turkish school children every morning until 2013. The oath is important to the MHP as they are a far-right nationalist but political Islam doesn’t factor into their ideology as much. This means, the MHP’s Turkish nationalism is much more like an evolution of that started by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who initially instated the Student Oath.

As Erdogan’s power has grown he has looked to remove many symbols of the old Kemalist structure and legacy much like he did when he demolished Gezi Park (Taksim Square) to build a military installation on the site. This site was home to military barracks prior to being made a park by Ataturk Himself after a coup was plotted by a group of Islamist Turks at the site in the Taksim Military Barracks. The plans to demolish the park ended up sparking nationwide protests (which got international attention and EU condemnations) yet once these demonstrations were over it was clear that, for Erdogan, removing these reminders of the founder of the Turkish republic has become a priority.

Unfortunately for Erdogan, he has also run into some resistance on the removal of the Student Oath and this time it isn’t protesters but the by a Turkish court instead. In fact, despite massive purges of judges since the failed coup in 2016, it is Turkey’s highest court standing in Erdogan’s way, the Council of State which recently ruled to reinstate the Oath. The MHP is celebrating the decision but Erdogan has now taken his grudge on the campaign trail saying the court failed to uphold the “national will,” which the nationalists working with the AKP obviously don’t agree with. While it is unclear if Erdogan will try to find some way to overturn this decision, his bashing on the Student Oath is unlikely to gain him any new Kemalist-adjacent nationalist voters.

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The other, bigger, dispute between the AKP and MHP revolves around nationalist mob boss Alaattin Cakici.

Cakici, who was also a member of the Grey Wolves – the MHP’s fanatical fascist youth wing – was recently visited in prison by Devlet Bahceli. After this visit, Bahceli publicly called for amnesty for Cakici’s charges ranging from money laundering to murder. Although these ties with the Grey Wolves and having the support of Bahceli makes him somewhat of a nationalist legend, this doesn’t matter to Erdogan who sees him as a criminal and, more importantly, as an oppositional political actor because of his notoriety.

Prior to the election in June Erdogan did state that “amnesty is not on our agenda right now” but the MHP took this to mean that there would be a possibility to plead Cakici’s case to Erdogan after he again secured the office of President (and its new powers). When Erdogan did win, the MHP continued to bring up amnesty for Cakici bu Erdogan, once again made clear that this was not on his agenda.

Erdogan reiterated his position from June just as recently as Sunday, saying “Some people are now talking about amnesty. The victim can forgive, but a state can never. Otherwise, we will be known as a government who forgives the drug dealers.”

This kind of rhetoric on both issues is unlikely to help the AKP get any nationalist People’s Alliance supporters who may be more inclined towards ultra-nationalism than they are to Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood Islamism. The MHP will likely highlight some of this during the campaign in order to grab some of these votes but they are still presented with a dilemma of their own when it comes to breaking with the AKP.

The MHP still needs Erdogan

While the MHP wishes their strain of nationalism was the most prevalent, it is not, even with the majority of Kemalists, who vote for Ataturk’s People’s Republican Party (CHP), the main opposition. This means that in order for the MHP to survive in the long run, they need the AKP.

The MHP may be fielding candidates to oppose the AKP’s, most of this nasty rhetoric will likely cool down after the election as both parties need each other. Since the MHP only received around 11 percent of the vote in June’s election, the AKP also failed to pass the 50 percent threshold on their own as Erdogan’s popularity has declined.

Related: Turkish Election Riddled with Fraud, Intimidation, and Questions

Luckily for Erdogan, one of the changes in the constitution he made allowed for the coalition system where the MHP’s 11 percent was added to the AKP’s 42.5 percent under the umbrella of the People’s Alliance giving Erdogan the 53 percent he needed to remain President. Erdogan was already facing new nationalist opposition from MHP defectors at the time who had defected to the new iYi (good) party lead by Meral Akşener which received a similar share of the vote to the MHP around 9 percent.

Erdogan and Bahceli also still both agree on a lot of foreign policy concerns, which is high on the list of Turkish priorities. Bahceli also opposes groups like the followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen as well as despises outside nations like the US or Germany trying to interfere in Turkish internal affairs. It is unlikely the MHP would have any way to ever see many of their foreign policy goals if it wasn’t for Erdogan which does still provide the President with some nationalist credentials.

Although things seem heated now, some of this is likely to taper out after the elections. Turkish politicians, especially Erdogan, have a habit of saying grandiose and inflammatory things during election season but both members of the People’s Alliance need each other. Both parties may disagree but for the time being it the AKP and MHP can’t afford to turn on each other in times like this.

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