The Collapse of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party

Just one week before the November 1 election, the average Turkish opinion polls suggested that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was on pace to win between 41-43 percent of the popular vote. Based on this data, a vast majority of Turkey analysis—this author included—wrote that the AKP would be emerge as the Turkey’s most popular political party, but fail to win enough seats in parliament to form a government. Defying expectations, the AKP won 49.4 percent of the vote, translating to a comfortable majority with 317 seats in parliament. The AKP now has enough seats to form a government without a coalition partner and pass laws unopposed. However, the party still does not have enough seats to pass a new constitution on to a public referendum without the support of at least thirteen opposition MPs.

The AKP managed to pick up some 4.5 million votes, attracting voters from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and winning back a number of conservative Kurdish voters who had voted for the Kurdish-majority Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) last June. Turkey’s second largest party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) managed to secure an extra 100,000 votes, winning 134 seats in parliament, compared to 133 after the June election. The HDP still managed to surpass the 10 percent election threshold, but it lost some 1.3 million votes to the AKP, resulting in a loss of twenty-one parliamentary seats.

The AKP has sought to cast its electoral win as Turkish voters choosing “stability over chaos”—a claim since repeated in numerous media outlets. This claim, however, is misleading. The story of this election—and the AKP’s resurgence—is twofold: First, the AKP managed to attract scores of right wing nationalist voters. Second, the PKK’s resumption of violence undermined the sense of pan-Kurdish solidarity that helped the HDP woo religious Kurdish voters that typically vote for center-right Turkish parties. In doing so, the AKP managed to take advantage of the recent turmoil in Turkey to reclaim its traditional control of Turkey’s center-right constituency.

The collapse of the nationalist far right appears linked to a growing disconnect between the party’s leadership and its grassroots supporters, many of which appear to have rejected the party’s recent political strategy. Following the inconclusive June election, the MHP had an opportunity to play the role of kingmaker: The party could have joined with the AKP to form a governing coalition, or allied with the CHP and HDP to form a minority government. The party refused to entertain either option. It ruled out any cooperation with the HDP, owing to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and included so many “poison pills” in its coalition demands of the AKP that it negated any hope of compromise. Instead, party leader Devlet Bahceli indicated that the MHP would remain in opposition, rather than play any part in governing Turkey.

The AKP’s turn to the nationalist right began in 2014, but its previous embrace of peace talks with the PKK undermined its broader appeal to Turkish nationalist voters. In late March, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intervened in the peace process, purportedly directing members of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s cabinet to cancel the formation a committee to monitor the peace talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

The “freezing” of the peace process helped galvanize Kurdish support for the HDP, but did not translate into widespread support for the AKP from MHP voters. After the failure of coalition negotiations, this dynamic changed. Outside of a few areas, the MHP lost votes in near every Turkish district in November. In retrospect, the MHP’s implosion began in August, after the MHP leadership refused to allow its members to participate in an interim cabinet formed before the holding of the November poll.

Defying Bacheli’s orders, Tugrul Turkes, the son of MHP founder Alparslan Turkes, joined the cabinet. Turkes was later kicked out of the MHP. He then joined the AKP, running as an MP on the party list in November. Turkes’ defiance of the party leadership appears to have foreshadowed the party’s popular decline and the defection of elements of the MHP’s grassroots to the AKP.

The AKP also benefitted from the PKK’s return to violence after the end of a two-year old ceasefire with the Turkish government in mid-July. This decision undermined the appeal of the HDP, particularly with an element of Kurdish voters it had attracted before the June poll. At times, the PKK and the HDP found themselves at odds during the campaign, with the latter calling for a ceasefire, only to be scolded by the PKK leadership for overstepping its authority. This friction between the PKK and the HDP is not unique: The PKK has a long history of trying to reign in civilian Kurdish/leftist parties that challenge the group’s authority.

Moving forward, the AKP now has a clear mandate to govern Turkey. In the coming days and weeks, the party will focus on forming a new cabinet and swearing in MPs in the new parliament. The formation of the cabinet will give Turkey watchers a better understanding of the AKP’s future legislative agenda and economic policy. For outside investors, much attention will be paid to the role of Ali Babacan and Mehmet Simsek, two respected technocrats that have the trust of international investors. However, some worry that the AKP could empower an economics team that favors the reduced Turkish interest rates, in line with Erdogan’s unorthodox monetary theory.

The AKP has already signaled that its first order of business entails drafting a new constitution that includes a transition to an executive presidential system—an element of the party’s political manifesto that it deemphasized during the last campaign, owing to a substantial majority of Turks wary of the proposal. The AKP lacks a three-fifths majority (330 seats) in parliament to independently draft and then pass a new constitution on to a public referendum. To implement the party’s presidential proposal, at least thirteen opposition MPs will have to vote in favor of AKP preferred language.

During previous negotiations over the same issue in 2011/2012, no opposition party openly supported this proposal, although the HDP is reported to have been open to a “grand bargain,” wherein it could support elements of the presidential system in return for the granting of autonomy in Kurdish majority cities. The CHP already indicated that it would work with the AKP on a new constitution, but will not support any move to an executive presidential system. The HDP, during the June and November campaigns, emphatically denied that it would support the so-called “grand bargain”. This disagreement will likely dominate domestic Turkish politics in the near term.

The AKP has also signaled that it will alter its approach to the so-called “Kurdish problem.” While the party has not clearly articulated it future plans, key AKP officials have shown no indication that the Turkish state intends to scale back its recent air campaign against the PKK. The recent military offensive aims to force to the PKK to disarm and withdraw from Turkey, which the AKP has indicated as prerequisites to restart peace negotiations.

In the days since the election, key party officials have suggested that the AKP may bypass the PKK all together, in favor of a new “democratization package” that appeals to the Kurdish minority. Some Kurdish constituencies oppose the PKK and cast their ballot in support of the AKP in this last election. Other officials, however, suggest that the HDP will not play a role in the future process; instead the AKP may work only with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK’s military leadership would, in all likelihood, reject such a proposal, citing the lack of a seat at the table. Either scenario portends the continuation of low-level violence in the southeast.

The AKP’s base also points to a more general conclusion about Turkish politics: The real threat to the AKP is the defection of nationalist voters on the far right, rather than the empowerment of Turkish left, imperfectly represented by the CHP and HDP. The AKP’s recent political success has elevated the importance of this key constituency. The party will have to take these voters into account or risk losing their support over the next four years. These dynamics will influence the handling of the Kurdish issue and help set the tone for domestic Turkish politics in the near term. The current trend points to a more nationalist AKP government, empowered by its impressive electoral victory to pursue its preferred electoral agenda.

Aaron Stein is a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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Image: A man holds scarves bearing the names and images of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) and President Tayyip Erdogan as supporters of the AK Party gather to wait for the arrival of Davutoglu in Istanbul, Turkey November 3, 2015. (Reuters)