Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 24

An angry confrontation outside the headquarters of the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) appears to have signaled the end of one of the longest platonic love affairs in Turkish politics.

On February 5 the representatives of a number of associations representing retired military personnel attempted to lay a black wreath outside the MHP headquarters in Ankara to protest the party’s decision to support the attempts by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to amend the Turkish constitution and lift the ban that currently prevents women wearing headscarves from attending university (see EDM, January 29). They were confronted by a group of MHP members, who yelled abuse at them before tearing the wreath to pieces and pushing and shoving the retired military personnel who tried to intervene to protect it (Radikal, Hurriyet, Milliyet, February 6).

When it was formed in the 1960s by Alparslan Turkes (1917-97), a retired colonel who had been one of the leaders of the 1960 military coup, the MHP combined supremacist nationalism with an explicit commitment to the secularist principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Although it never won many seats in parliament, the MHP always punched above its electoral weight – often literally. The party was heavily involved in the factional violence of the 1970s that resulted in an estimated 5,000 deaths and triggered another military coup in 1980.

Despite his commitment to Ataturkist secularism, Turkes was far from anti-Islamic. In fact, he argued that Sunni Islam was one of the defining characteristics of Turkish identity; although he insisted that both the precepts of the Koran and the outward manifestations of Islamic piety should be excluded from the public sphere. The distinction was often lost on the conservative poor who formed the bulk of the MHP’s grassroots support and who were more attracted by the MHP’s combination of Turkish racial supremacy and Islamic identity. However, Turkes’s nationalism and commitment to Ataturk’s legacy meant that many in the staunchly secularist Turkish military regarded the MHP with considerable sympathy.

Even though the connections between the MHP and the military were always more on an individual than an institutional basis, there were times when the relationship went beyond mere sentiment. Under Turkes’s leadership, the MHP was in frequent contact with the military and always willing to cooperate in what it regarded as the national interest. As a result, MHP members were very active in gathering intelligence for the military and frequently featured in the network of contacts that constituted what Turks call the “deep state” (see Terrorism Focus, January 29).

However, the relationship began to change when Turkes died in 1997 and was succeeded as MHP chairman by Devlet Bahceli (born 1948). For the Turkish public, the stereotypical MHP supporter was a gun-toting, testosterone-driven, poorly educated male with a drooping moustache. With his ruthless energy and uncompromising rhetoric, even when he was in his 70s, Turkes himself had always resembled a gnarled veteran of countless street fights. By contrast, Bahceli looked more like a provincial bank manager. He owed his election to the party chairmanship not so much to his popular appeal among the MHP’s grassroots as to his control over the party apparatus. A fastidious, lifelong bachelor, with almost no interests outside politics, Bahceli had spent most of his career working behind the scenes in the MHP bureaucracy. His close associates reported that he had great difficulty adapting to the rough and tumble of a public political career and was initially reluctant even to shake hands with the party’s grassroots supporters who thronged around him whenever he appeared in public. Nevertheless, he remains a very able manager of the MHP party machine and has surrounded himself with a team of close associates. But, since he took over the party leadership, Bahceli has not attempted to re-establish the personal contacts that Turkes enjoyed with many in the military.

Initially, there were still contacts between some members of the military and individual high-ranking officials in the MHP. Even if they did not like Bahceli personally, in the run-up to the July 2007 general election many serving and retired officer still viewed the MHP with sympathy, not least because of its uncompromising attitude on the Kurdish issue and because they thought that it was still committed to Ataturkist secularist principles and would serve as check on the AKP, which they believed had a long-term radical Islamist agenda.

In the election of July 2007, the MHP won 14.3% of the popular vote and took 70 seats in the 550-member unicameral parliament. However, since the election, Bahceli appears to have decided to try to consolidate the MHP’s electoral base by appealing to conservative voters. The first public indication of the distance that had opened up between the military and MHP came in the week after the election, when Bahceli abruptly announced that the party would support the AKP’s attempts to appoint Abdullah Gul to the presidency (see EDM, July 26). Not only had the Turkish military actively sought to prevent Gul’s appointment, but Bahceli’s decision took them completely by the surprise.

At the time, sources close to Bahceli maintained that he was supporting the AKP in order to prevent it having to turn for support to the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society party (DTP), which might have sought concessions on the Kurdish issue in return for backing Gul’s candidacy. However, it is impossible to find a similar justification for Bahceli’s decision to support the AKP’s attempts to lift the headscarf ban. Again, not only is the Turkish military resolutely opposed to lifting the ban (see EDM, January 31) but Bahceli’s decision seems to have taken it completely by surprise.

On February 5, as MHP members clashed with retired officers outside the party headquarters, Bahceli added insult to injury by publicly declaring that he had “doubts about the mental health” of those who opposed lifting the headscarf ban (Milliyet, NTV, February 6).

Even if the relationship was never formally consummated, Bahceli’s words look set to ensure that, as so often happens with human relationships, the acrimony and name-calling of the breakup may destroy any hopes of a reconciliation.