Turkish nationalist alliance faces an uphill struggle

Editor's note: After more than a decade of stiff opposition to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has begun to take the ruling party’s side on crucial issues, including the April 2017 referendum that approved a switch to an executive presidency.

The MHP moved closer to a fully fledged alliance with the AKP on Monday, when party leader Devlet Bahçeli announced his party would support President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the 2019 presidential election rather than fielding its own candidate.

Not long has passed since MHP Chairman Devlet Bahçeli announced he would not be running in the presidential elections, instead declaring his unconditional support for AKP Chairman Tayyip Erdoğan.

In one sense, this stance marks a first in the MHP’s history.

Until now, the MHP had chosen candidates for the presidential elections which did not require a broad consensus from within their own ranks, even when they knew they had no chance of winning.

By choosing a well-known and recognised party politician as candidate, they took care to display a different stance to the other parties.

We should note here that when the election of a new president required a broad consensus, the MHP has always been disposed to compromise, and not to spoil the opposition’s chances.

The MHP’s position on the presidential election next year thus completely contradicts its attitude in previous elections.

During the 2014 presidential election, the first to be decided by popular vote, the MHP and the main opposition party acted decisively to put forward a joint candidate. In this unsuccessful election campaign, in the local elections earlier in 2014, and in the 2015 general elections, the MHP adopted tough political rhetoric to oppose the AKP that at times even verged on being offensive.

Their rhetoric and position since the April 2017 referendum have been quite different.

As a natural result of this position, the MHP in one sense automatically became the AKP government’s external support, and a partner in its destiny. Finally, this week, this partnership resulted in the declaration of unconditional support for Erdoğan’s bid for the presidency.

The days ahead of us will show what will come of this announcement, and how the MHP’s voter base will receive it.

MHP leaders most probably assume they can easily explain this to their voters by saying they are dictating a candidate for the ruling party, as they did in the past for the opposition.

With a period of more than 20 months until the next general election, due by November next year, the MHP has indeed, and irreversibly, “dictated” the ruling party’s candidate by declaring its support for Erdoğan.

Of course, one might speculate that the MHP took a masterful initiative in the last presidential election, and is acting according to the result of that move.

However, I suppose that only they know what kind of long game they have in mind with this latest move.

What is evident from this move is that the MHP has hemmed in the government.

By vocally declaring its support for Erdoğan, the MHP has in one sense entered partnership with the government; it has also determined the direction and limits of the government’s pursuit of new openings, compromises and allies.

Since it was founded in 2001 and began to participate in elections, AKP has placed much importance on compromise, new participation and openings.

In a sense, it has continually broadened its societal acceptance and safeguarded its existence through grand coalitions.

This strategy, which was driven through openings to the liberal and pluralist sectors until the 2011 elections, hit a wall after the Dec. 17 2013 corruption investigations into AKP officials. The party was forced to compromise with its opponents and make certain concessions in order to survive the crisis, narrowing its field of potential allies.

Since then, the party has struggled, within and without, to preserve the image, strength, acceptance and respect it had enjoyed.

In the coming election, a 51% popular vote is required for the president to be elected in the first round. It is clear that the AKP and Erdoğan will need to reach outside their party in order to achieve this.

By announcing its support at this stage, the MHP has on the one hand pledged a mass of votes to the AKP and Erdoğan, and on the drawn the boundaries on its necessary search for compromise.

It seems that the only option open to them within these boundaries is the formation of a new ‘Nationalist Front’.

Besides the fact that the image of such a ‘Nationalist Front’ cannot aid in normalising the political situation or creating a peaceful, democratic environment, we have already seen in the April 2016 referendum that this alliance will not prove sufficient at the ballot box.

It seems that, in spite of all the criticism, the MHP’s early declaration of support appears to be a rather masterful move on its part.

From the AKP’s perspective, though, the results it will bring are not only unclear, but in fact are a cause to worry.