Fri, Apr 14, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Divided nationalists hold key in Turkey

OPPOSITION NO MORE?The MHP might lose all significance as an opposition party if a “Yes” vote brings about constitutional changes giving the president more power

AFP, ANKARA

To mark the 20th anniversary this month of the death of Alparslan Turkes, the founder of modern Turkish nationalism, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited his grave in Ankara and offered up prayers.

Turkes, who founded the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in 1969 and remained its chairman until his death in 1997, is still an icon for nationalists known simply as the “basbug” (chieftain).

The visit to the grave of Turkes, the spokesman of the 1960 military coup that led to the hanging of Erdogan’s political idol, then-Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes, might seem surprising and even contradictory.

The MHP is a party in opposition to Erdogan’s Muslim-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) with, in theory, a starkly different ideology.

However, it has become an unlikely ally in Erdogan’s quest for a presidential system to enhance his powers. Nationalist votes will be crucial in ensuring a “Yes” vote in the referendum on Sunday on the constitution.

The task is complicated by a split in the MHP between those following its leader, Devlet Bahceli — who has led the party since Turkes’ death and backs the new system — and an influential dissident faction that does not.

The votes of nationalists are crucial for the executive presidential system to be approved, said Samim Akgonul, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

In another act of stunning political symbolism, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim astonished observers by making the special hand sign of the Grey Wolves — a wing of the MHP with a reputation for street violence — in a speech in Ankara.

“Erdogan must convince the nationalists that he is the first of the Grey Wolves,” Akgonul said.

Bahceli’s backing of the executive presidency has caused the schism within the MHP, with several members of the party, including lawmakers, dismissed for failing to toe the “Yes” line.

The top dissident member leading the “No” wing of the the nationalists is former MHP leadership candidate, Meral Aksener, who is also a former Turkish minister of the interior.

A capable orator who sports a henna tattoo of the Turkish flag on the inside of her hand, Aksener has been holding rallies nationwide with the slogan: “80 million times no,” referring to the country’s population.

MHP supporter Omer Cakiroglu told reporters at an Aksener rally in Istanbul that the party’s grassroots were not supporting the changes to the constitution, despite what the top brass had agreed.

“I cannot believe that a nationalist would not say no,” the 55-year-old said, adding that he was there in support of the “No” campaign rather than Aksener.

Another prominent dissident MHP figure is the dynamic Sinan Ogan, who was ejected from the party last month.

“Over 90 percent of nationalists will say no,” Ogan said in an interview in Ankara, after clashes hit one of his rallies on March 26.

Former MHP lawmaker Nuri Okutan — dismissed at the same time as Ogan — said that if a “Yes” vote was agreed the party would end up losing all significance as an opposition force.

“If this referendum passes, the losers will be the nationalists and the MHP,” Okutan said.

MHP deputy chairman Mehmet Gunal dismissed such arguments as claims made up by bitter ex-members.

“Now they are trying to make a fuss because they have been kicked out,” Gunal told reporters. “Nationalism will be stronger, the Nationalist Movement Party will be stronger.”

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