Why Erdogan is entering key elections with a far-right ally

The unconventional alliance between Erdogan's AK Party and MHP seeks to make him Turkey's first executive president.

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    AK Party supporters say their party and the MHP came closer after the 2016 coup bid [Umut Uras/Al Jazeera]
    AK Party supporters say their party and the MHP came closer after the 2016 coup bid [Umut Uras/Al Jazeera]

    Istanbul, Turkey - On the streets of Turkey's largest city, enthusiastic supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan are hard at work to ensure a win both for the Turkish president and his party's bloc on the June 24 polls.

    Confident of a victory in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary races, they can be found in almost every square of the Istanbul metropolis, handing leaflets to passers-by and urging them to vote for the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) 64-year-old leader.

    "We will make Erdogan the executive president," volunteer Mehmet Kara says passionately, using the word "baskan", the term Turks use for presidents in the United States.

    "He is the best thing that happened to this country and we are working to achieve that," adds the 25-year-old, his voice gradually drowned out by loud music as other banner-waving supporters nearby break into AK Party campaign songs.

    Turkey's presidential office will be significantly empowered following Sunday's snap polls, which, for the first time in Turkish history, are scheduled to take place on the same day as the general elections.

    Erdogan, hoping to keep his seat with increased powers, has entered the race in the face of a depreciating lira, straining relations with the West and criticism from rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch over, what they call the deterioration of the human rights and the rule of law in the country.

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    In the parliamentary race, the AK Party joined forces with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to form the People's Alliance bloc, in line with a recently introduced law that allows political parties to establish election alliances. Erdogan is the bloc's joint presidential candidate.

    Their main rival is another alliance formed by the main opposition centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP) and right-wing IYI (Good) Party, which includes ex-MHP seniors, as well as two smaller parties. The pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (HDP) is also predicted to pass the election threshold and enter parliament.

    In the past, Turkey's unusually high threshold of 10 percent prevented small parties from making their way to parliament.

    Under the new legislation, if an alliance hits the mark, each party in it will be considered to have surpassed the election threshold and be represented in parliament.

    MHP support in referendum

    The cooperation between the AK Party and the MHP has been on the Turkish political scene since late 2016, with both parties supporting the "yes" vote in a key constitutional referendum last year.

    Narrowly passed, the April 2017 referendum approved major constitutional changes that will largely come into force after this week's elections. They are set to empower the next president with significant executive powers, abolish the prime ministry and remove the monitoring role of parliament, among other changes.

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    The polls on Sunday will be held under a state of emergency, in place since July 2016 following a failed deadly coup blamed by the government on the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based self-exiled religious leader.

    "The AK Party-MHP alliance represents the people as it is stated in the name, against the forces who want to steal the will of the people," Kara told Al Jazeera in the Istanbul district of Eminonu, apparently referring to the coup attempt two years ago.

    Thirty-nine-year-old Ahmet Kinac, an MHP voter, also said the partnership between the two parties is "crucial" for Turkey to avoid a repeat of a military intervention.

    "This is not an election partnership; this is a crucial cooperation - the only arrangement - that would protect our country from another July 15," Kinac, who works for a private company, told Al Jazeera, referring to the date of the failed putsch.

    Political rivals

    However, an AK Party-MHP alliance would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, as both parties were sharply at odds in a number of issues.

    In 2014, the MHP supported a joint opposition candidate in the presidential race against Erdogan. Its leader, Devlet Bahceli, was a harsh critic of Erdogan's push for an executive presidency, as well as his policies on the economy, foreign affairs and - in particular - the Kurdish issue until 2016.

    Regardless of the reasons for its making, be they political calculations, recently converging policies or the coup attempt, the alliance seems to be benefitting both sides.

    Ali Recai Ogcem, AK Party voter

    The outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state were engaged in a war for almost 30 years until a 2013 truce was declared and peace talks were launched.

    The ceasefire largely held until the summer of 2015, when the two sides once again engaged in escalating clashes and Ankara launched a military campaign against the PKK.

    According to Taha Akyol, a Turkish senior political analyst and columnist, the nationalist MHP could only consider an alliance with the AK Party after a drastic change in the latter's approach to the PKK.

    "The peace process was making the AK Party lose votes, as Erdogan also said in 2015, amid escalating violence coming from the PKK," Akyol told Al Jazeera.

    "The AK Party's departure from the peace process is one of the factors that facilitated the cooperation with the MHP."

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to keep his seat with increased powers [Umut Uras/Al Jazeera]

    In the June 2015, the AK Party lost its parliamentary majority, while the pro-Kurdish HDP passed, for the first time, the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament with a significant number of MPs.

    Nevertheless, Erdogan's party won the majority back in the November of the same year, after the poles-apart three opposition parties failed to form a coalition government.

    Akyol also said that Erdogan and the AK Party needed the MHP to get a "yes" vote in last year's referendum - passed with just 51 percent of the votes - and to have a shot at executive presidency in the coming elections.

    Bahceli's trouble

    On the other hand, the MHP's leadership went through tough times in late 2015 and 2016. Bahceli, the MHP leader, was challenged by some of the party's senior members opposing his policies and claiming that he could not tap into Turkey's nationalist voter base.

    At the end of a long struggle within the party, former Interior Minister Meral Aksener and her allies were barred from challenging Bahceli due to a decision by a local election body.

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    They were later sacked from the MHP and shortly afterwards, they formed IYI Party, which makes its electoral debut on Sunday.

    "Bahceli needed support to remain in power [as MHP leader] at this point because the opposition movement in his party found support in the party base," said Akyol told. "The stance the judiciary and pro-government media took at that time show that he secured this support." 

    Akyol said it would have been impossible for the MHP to surpass the election threshold by itself, following Bahceli's clinging to power and the departure of Aksener and her allies from the party.

    Ali Recai Ogcem, an AK Party voter, believes the two parties that have formed People's Alliance bloc have managed the partnership well so far.

    "Regardless of the reasons for its making, be their political calculations, recently converging policies or the coup attempt, the alliance seems to be benefitting both sides," the 29-year-old PhD candidate, told Al Jazeera.

    Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: Um_uras

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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