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Apr 10 2019

Ultranationalists are big winner from Turkey vote - analyst

The surprise opposition victories in Turkey’s March 31 local elections are historic, but the real winner is the ruling party’s ultranationalist coalition partner, said an analysis in U.S. magazine Foreign Policy.

“For the first time in a quarter-century, it appears that Turkey’s economic powerhouse, Istanbul, and its capital city, Ankara, will be governed by secularists, not Islamists,” Selim Sazak, doctoral student in political science at Brown University, wrote on Tuesday for Foreign Policy.  

More than half of the country’s population will be living in cities with opposition mayors, he said, adding that these cities make up more than 60 percent of GDP.  

“But make no mistake: This is only a modest success for the opposition,” wrote Sazak, adding that the real winner from this vote is the AKP’s coalition partner, Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“That is where the Anatolian heartland’s culturally conservative, lower-income voters have defected as they feel the burn from Turkey’s economic crisis, for which Erdoğan and his party are largely to blame,” said Sazak.

After a leadership divide, former Interior Minister Meral Akşener left the MHP in late 2017 to create the Good Party, which aligned with the CHP for the March 31 elections and is now Turkey’s nationalist opposition. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s government embraced Bahçeli’s platform.

“The government’s crackdown on rights and liberties, its heavy-handed approach to the Kurds, and its turn away from the West reflect the MHP’s security-centric agenda, its ultranationalist identity, and its bellicose rhetoric,” said Sazak. “Bahçeli is not in power, but his ideas are.”

This marks a great shift from a few years ago. Followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen have gone from being Erdoğan allies to Turkey’s public enemy #1, with tens of thousands of Gülenists within the state bureaucracy and security dismissed and mostly replaced by MHP cadres, according to Sazak.

The Kurdish political movement, meanwhile, has gone from being in a peace process to being effectively criminalised, with its leaders behind bars, much to the delight of the MHP, said Sazak.

The Good Party gained 13 districts in the March 31 vote and the CHP 17, while the MHP added 40 and the AKP lost 42.

“Bahçeli’s victory is what matters the most, because he has now placed Erdoğan in a bind,” said Sazak.

The president can no longer return to his former allies, the Gülenists and the Kurds, nor can he turn to the secularists or the Good Party, which he has demonised. Though Erdoğan’s position as president is secure until 2023, his party’s power in parliament depends on its alliance with the MHP. Before he was his ally, Bahçeli was Erdoğan’s rival, a situation that could return.

The MHP continues to pull Erdoğan to the right, costing the AKP centrist votes and far-right votes because Bahçeli uses the alliance to ensure his party’s candidates run unopposed or independently, according to Sazak.
“It is worth noting that MHP won nine of its 11 municipalities in races against the AKP, not the opposition, and two of them with razor-thin margins. With friends like these, Erdoğan has no need for enemies,” said Sazak. “That’s why Bahçeli is currently the most powerful person in Ankara.”