Apr 30 2019

Erdoğan still on top in Turkey - Foreign Policy

Rather than being pulled to the right, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains in full control of his government and his ruling party’s ultranationalist ally, and at the top of Turkish politics, said an analysis for U.S. magazine Foreign Policy.

A Foreign Policy essay earlier this month argued that Devlet Bahçeli, leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), had been the real winner of Turkey’s March 31 elections and had begun pulling Erdoğan to the right.

“It’s a counterintuitive, but seductive argument,” Selim Koru, analyst at Turkey’s Economic Policy Research Foundation, wrote in response on Monday.

“But the logic is faulty. Erdoğan is not being pulled anywhere. He is in firm control of his relationship with the MHP and his government’s actions,” said Koru. “He is still where everyone always wants to be: at the top.”

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not a mere participant, but rather the vehicle for the redesign of Turkey’s political regime, and thus cannot have partners, only subservient allies, according to Koru.

“The Erdoğan government subsumed the MHP sometime around early 2016, when it was at its weakest point,” said Koru, referring to the MHP’s slump in the November 2015 elections.

In the presidential referendum of 2017, the MHP openly backed the president for the first time, helping to push him over the 50 percent threshold, according to Koru. By early 2018, Ankara expected early elections, but Erdoğan viewed calling for early polls as a sign of weakness.

“Bahçeli stepped forward to say that early elections were necessary to ‘disrupt the game of those playing for chaos,’” said Koru.

Erdoğan invited his coalition partner to meet and they quickly agreed to June elections. Despite the presence of the rival Good Party, led by former MHP deputy Meral Akşener, the MHP held on to its 11 percent of the vote.

“This shouldn’t have been surprising,” said Koru.  “By the 2018 election, it had become clear that the MHP was now in the fold of the Erdoğan government, so those people simply split their tickets and voted for the MHP in parliament and Erdoğan as president.”

In last month’s local elections, the MHP was a tool of the AKP’s strategy, which sought to optimise gains by placing the MHP in provinces where their candidates had a better chance, according to Koru.

“The Erdoğan government appears to value the MHP as a way to push its wares under the brand name of pan-Turkic nationalism, as well as to obfuscate the optics of one-man rule,” said Koru. “This does not mean that Bahçeli has significant leverage over Erdoğan.”

To understand their relationship it helps to look at Turkey’s political history, specifically its Islamists, who tend to blend orthodox Islamist beliefs with a more romantic, Anatolianist tradition, according to Koru.

Unlike the orthodox, the latter is willing to accept the MHP’s ethnicity-based politics because it appreciates the Turkish nation as a pure entity, according to Koru.

Koru points to leaders in India, Russia, and China who, like Erdoğan, embrace problematic nationalist rhetoric and policies and denounce Western dominance.

“If the Erdoğan government’s current stance really were an accident of electoral calculus, it would not be so prevalent across the world,” said Koru. “The MHP isn’t very important in this picture. It is a small fish in a very big pond.”