Founded in 1969 by former Colonel of Turkish Armed Forces, Alparslan Türkeş, Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi - MHP) has always been an important actor in Turkish political life. Although the party has never won an election, it became a coalition partner for center-right and other rightist parties in the 1970s and center-left and center-right parties in early 2000s. More importantly, the party has been able to possess a power larger than its voting percentages in the elections thanks to its militant activists and has been very successful in directing different governments in Turkey toward certain policies through different channels. Until now, the party achieved to protect Turkey’s unitary and nation-state model, which is seen as the greatest taboo by Turkish nationalists and security forces although Kurdish nationalism became much stronger in recent years. Nowadays, MHP faces a controversy related to congress and the party’s leadership race seems to be tightened. Journalist Murat Yetkin defines this process even as “turbulence”.
MHP is ruled by Devlet Bahçeli, who succeeded Alparslan Türkeş, since 1997. Before Bahçeli, the party’s highest voting percentage was around 8 %. The party was highly anti-communist and ultra-nationalist during the Cold War and was perceived as a party prone to violence. Thus, under Türkeş’s leadership, the party was not able to get higher votes. As an unknown figure outside of the party, Mr. Bahçeli was able to make an unexpected rise in party’s votes in 1999 general elections with 18 % of the total votes. The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and discussions related to his execution also conjecturally helped MHP and Bahçeli to do well in this election. As an enigmatic and respected person, his moderate nationalism also helped MHP to take more votes from center-right segments. MHP became a coalition partner to DSP and ANAP after 1999 elections. However, although this government achieved some important reforms related to Turkey’s EU membership process, it also marked the collapse of these three parties due to the huge earthquake disaster and terrible effects of 2001 economic crisis in Turkey. Thus, MHP could not enter into the parliament after 2002 elections with 8.35 % of the total votes. However, the party, with its strong Turkish nationalism tradition, was able to recover. In 2007, the party garnered 14.27 % of the total votes and became the third party in the parliament after AKP and CHP. In 2011, the party got 13 % of the votes and kept its third place in the parliament although it lost many seats. In June 2015, the party got 16.29 % of the votes and increased its chances for establishing a coalition government with other parties. However, Bahçeli refused to engage in coalition talks with AKP or pro-Kurdish HDP and closed the door for any coalition formula with MHP. As a result, the party’s votes decreased to 11.90 % in November 2015 elections. MHP became the fourth party in the parliament after AKP, CHP and pro-Kurdish HDP. This was not welcomed by Turkish nationalists.
If we have to make a general assessment of Bahçeli period, we can say that Mr. Bahçeli transformed the party into a more moderate party compared to Türkeş years, a party that is closer to center-right parties of Süleyman Demirel in the past (AP, DYP). In that sense, he did the exact opposite of European nationalist leaders, which transformed their parties into far-right, Islamophobic and racist parties in recent years. Bahçeli created a less ideological MHP but never gave up from the party’s insistence on three unchangeable principles of Turkish constitution related to the republican system, unitary state structure and nation-state model. The party supports AKP government in recent months especially in its fight against Kurdish secessionist PKK. However, the party’s nationalist aspirations do not match with the sociological realities of Turkey especially in the densely Kurdish populated south-eastern villages of the country. In recent years, pro-Kurdish HDP takes enormous votes in this part of the country changing from 60 % to 85 % in Kurdish villages. MHP offers only military solutions for the Kurdish question and alienates itself from Kurdish voters. The party also faces a dual identity problem. In big and modern cities, the party’s voters resemble to pro-Kemalist social democratic CHP voters, whereas in conservative Anatolian cities, the party’s voters are nearly identical with pro-Islamist AKP voters. Until now, Bahçeli has been able to prevent a collapse and showed good leadership skills, but his unwillingness to make MHP a governing party creates disturbances in recent years within the party. The party’s foreign policy vision also seems static and does not create excitement in the rightist circles. Thus, Turkish nationalism was replaced by pro-Islamic ideals of AKP in recent years. The party officially supports Turkey’s EU membership ideal, but it is against concessions during this process. The party also seems very passive in relation to Turkic world, an area where AKP seems more active. Thus, the party loses its supporters to AKP. MHP’s Turkish Islam also looses ground in Turkey in recent years due to growing Salafist tones of Islam embraced by AKP leaders.
Sinan Oğan-Meral Akşener-Koray Aydın
Very recently, Turkish courts decided on the convention of MHP’s extraordinary congress on May 8, 2016. However, Bahçeli stated that the legal process continues and there will not be a congress on 8 May. Bahçeli also accused Fethullah Gülen movement for this decision and said that this movement tries to take the control of the party. He added that the party’s ordinary congress will be on March 18, 2018. The process is still unclear and no one knows what will happen in May. Among the opposition leaders, Sinan Oğan, Meral Akşener and Koray Aydın supported the decision and announced that they are preparing for leadership race. All three candidates have considerable support within the party. Oğan is a young and energetic figure and has strong ties with Caucasian Turks, most notably with Azerbaijan. He is the owner of Turkish think-tank TÜRKSAM and is a rising figure within the party. Akşener on the other hand is an experienced political figure who served in Turkish governments before as part of center-right political tradition. She was the Minister of Interior Affairs during Tansu Çiller’s Prime Ministry. She has strong ties with security elite. Koray Aydın is a former minister of the party who was the only candidate against Bahçeli in 2012 congress. He was able to get 441 votes against Bahçeli’s 725, which shows that he has a considerable support within the party. Among the Bahçeli loyalists also, there are some leadership candidates. For instance, a well-known far-right political figure, Political Science Professor Ümit Özdağ, also the founder of Turkish think-tank 21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü, announced his candidacy for leadership recently. Özdağ claimed that MHP has 30 % biological voters potential and he could do much better than Bahçeli. Özdağ was a candidate against Bahçeli in the past but lost the election and later was expelled from the party. He returned to the party with a court decision and became a member of the parliament. Among the candidates, Oğan and Özdağ have high potential to make harsher opposition to AKP policies and increase votes with their nationalist rhetoric. Here, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the rightful cause of Azerbaijan against Armenia, Cyprus Turks and still unrecognized status of TRNC, Russian annexation of Crimea and the difficult situation of Crimean Tatars and most importantly PKK terrorism could be the most important propaganda materials for Turkish nationalists.
If the congress could be convened, it seems like this time Mr. Bahçeli will not be able to keep his seat easily. Opposition candidates are all strong and well-known in nationalist circles. They have also good connections within the party. However, the controversy for the congress still continues and Bahçeli seems confident that there will not be a congress any time soon. In any case, MHP does not seem like a party that could govern Turkey in the near future. However, MHP’s militancy potential still makes this party a very important political organization especially related to Kurdish question and Cyprus Dispute. MHP’s moderate opposition could help Turkey to solve these problems or to make it worse in case the party decides to engage in militant activism. Thus, it seems like the governing AKP and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also will be highly involved in this process.
Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 Murat Yetkin (2016), “Turbulence in nationalist party strengthens Turkish government”, Hürriyet Daily News, Date of Accession: 14.04.2016 from http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/Default.aspx?pageID=449&nID=97725&NewsCatID=409.
 “Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi”, Vikipedi, Date of Accession: 14.04.2016 from https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milliyet%C3%A7i_Hareket_Partisi.
 “Bahçeli: Olağanüstü kurultay yoktur yapılmayacaktır” (2016), Milliyet, Date of Accession: 14.04.2016 from http://www.milliyet.com.tr/bahceli-musluman-gorunumlu/siyaset/detay/2225683/default.htm.
 “Bahçeli: Paralele teslim edecek partimiz yok” (2016), Sözcü, Date of Accession: 14.04.2016 from http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2016/gundem/mhp-grup-toplantisi-12-1179992/.
 “MHP'de muhalif üç isim bir araya geldi” (2016), NTV, Date of Accession: 14.04.2016, http://www.ntv.com.tr/turkiye/mhpde-muhalif-uc-isim-bir-araya-geldi,1u6g6CgjO06NpU_dumDodA.
 “Genel Başkan adayı Ümit Özdağ açıkladı! MHP'nin biyolojik oyu yüzde kaç?” (2016), Ajans Haber, Date of Accession: 14.04.2016 from http://www.ajanshaber.com/mhpnin-biyolojik-oyu-yuzde-kac-haberi/347188.