ISTANBUL BLOG: Bahceli clears way for Erdogan's referendum

ISTANBUL BLOG: Bahceli clears way for Erdogan's referendum
Devlet Bahceli is the leader of the nationalist opposition MHP since 1994.
By bne IntelliNews December 1, 2016

Devlet Bahceli, a seasoned, veteran Turkish politician, a month ago suddenly opened Pandora’s box, letting all hell break loose. What he did was to let “the presidential rule” genie out of the bottle when even the ruling AKP seemed to have shelved the idea.

The intriguing part in this story is that Bahceli is not from the AKP, nor a wise man whose statesmanship is held dear by many, but the leader of the nationalist opposition MHP since 1994.

Pundits and commentators, taken by surprise, are still trying to understand what Bahceli is up to, what his plans are, and whether he is engineering a Byzantine game to corner President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

With this unexpected move the MHP has become the key player in Turkish politics. The centre-left main opposition CHP and pro-Kurdish HDP are totally cut off from the conversation. They are against the executive presidency, so the AKP sees no need to talk to them.

All the AKP wants is the support from MHP’s 40 deputies in parliament to put the constitutional reforms to a popular vote that could take place sometime in the spring. The AKP is 14 seats short of the 330 required to call a referendum on constitutional changes, which is why it is seeking the backing of the MHP.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Bahceli met on December 1 for the last time to iron out their differences over the bill. Their statements at the press conference suggest that they have reached a broad agreement but did not provide details of the legal amendments. There are some minor issues to be worked out, Bahceli told reporters.

Investors are concerned that the government will spend much of its energy on the upcoming referendum, distracting from much-needed reforms at a time when the country’s economy is heading towards a slowdown. The lira weakened to a fresh low of 3.48 per dollar as Yildirim and Bahceli spoke.

Change of heart

According to Bahceli, there is already a de facto executive presidency in Turkey and either Erdogan should stop acting like an executive president or this de facto situation should be given a legal status. The AKP took this as a greenlight from the nationalist leader to push for constitutional reforms. It drafted a bill and sent it over to the MHP for discussions that began earlier this month.

In the past, Bahceli was nothing but a fervent defender of the parliamentary system. Why this sudden change of heart then? Some argue that Bahceli is acting out of self-interest, simply eyeing the vice-president post.  

Fearing that the MHP could not make it to parliament in the next elections, maybe Bahceli just wants to save the day, buying time to delay the extinction of his party. Bahceli probably bets that if Erdogan gets his way, there won’t be elections until 2019. While waiting for the next poll as part of the presidential circle, he may have time to come up with new strategies and bright ideas to boost support for his party.

The MHP was the biggest loser in November’s snap poll with its share of the vote declining to 11.9%, just above the 10% threshold to find representation in parliament, from 16.3% in June. The party lost ground to the AKP as the latter sharpened its nationalist rhetoric in the run-up to the poll.

Tugrul Turkes, a former colleague and comrade of Bahceli, has some interesting answers as to why Bahceli might have suddenly changed his mind to support the AKP’s bid to change the country’s charter. Tugrul Turkes is no ordinary politician: He is the son of the legendary nationalist leader, the late Alpaslan Turkes.

Tugrul Turkes was an MP from the MHP and a deputy chairman of the nationalist party. He joined the AKP government at the invitation of former premier Ahmet Davutoglu after the June elections and now serves as the deputy premier in Yildirim’s cabinet.

“Bahceli is an experienced politician. He must have a strategy. If the AKP loses the referendum, such an outcome may force an early election and Bahceli thinks the MHP could benefit from that. This could be his strategy”, Turkes said in a recent interview with the Hurriyet newspaper. “Let’s look at this way: If you get 49.5% of the vote, you certainly win the elections, but with this vote, you lose the referendum and the president’s legitimacy could become questionable”, he added.

Turkes is implying that Bahceli may have some sinister plans to create turmoil within the AKP.

Family feud

There are already signs of division. In the same interview, Turkes said he was against the reinstatement of the death penalty, and the state of emergency should be lifted if a referendum on the presidential system were to be held.

Both Erdogan and Bahceli are in favour of bringing back capital punishment and the extension of the emergency rule that was declared in the wake of the failed July 15 coup attempt.

The government reacted angrily to the European Parliament’s vote to freeze membership talks with Turkey. Pro-government newspapers ran articles castigating the bloc. Politicians, including Erdogan, Yildirim, EU affairs minister Omer Celik, and justice minister Bekiz Bozdag, all dismissed the EP’s vote as “null and void”.

However, in response to an article by a pro-government columnist, titled “Holding a session on Turkey when the EU is collapsing?”, Deputy PM Mehmet Simsek, well-respected by international investors, tweeted: “No! The EU is not collapsing. On the contrary, it is a success story. 510mn people live there in peace and prosperity”. And he became a target on social media. In the face of these attacks, Simsek said he was misunderstood, he was simply giving facts about the EU, but he did not approve of the bloc’s attitude towards Turkey.

In another recent incident, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci publicly said he does not want the state of the emergency to be extended anymore. He became a target of AKP supporters too.

Are the cracks within the ruling party starting to burst into the open? Is Bahceli aware of this internal feud and trying to exploit it? There is no solid evidence to support such speculation.

Fragmented opposition 

What about the two other parties in parliament, the CHP and HDP? The main opposition secularist CHP has been very ineffective and ridiculously clumsy. It does not seem to have any clear strategy as to how it could reach out to disillusioned voters to stop its rival Erdogan.

Its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat, is always reluctant to take bold action. For example, earlier this month, the non-parliamentary opposition group called the June Movement, named after the Gezi park protest back in the summer of 2013, consisting of socialists and leftist NGOs, held a rally in Istanbul against the AKP that attracted between 10,000-20,000 people.

CHP officials first said they and party supporters would attend, but they made a sharp U-turn at the last moment and decided not to attend the gathering. Apparently, the CHP cancelled its plans because the HDP was there, distancing itself from the pro-Kurdish party that has become paralysed since ten of its deputies, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, were arrested earlier this month.  It looks like the CHP cannot decide what it should be: a party of the centre-left, defending the fundamental values of social democracy in a largely nationalist and conservative country, or a party that is taken hostage by the social/political agenda set out by its rival AKP.

CHP’s zigzags and hesitations, its lack of clarity in its orientation and the absence of true leadership make it difficult for Turkey’s opposition groups to unite.

The CHP got 25.3% of the vote in the November 2015 elections, only slightly higher than the 25% it secured in the June poll. Support for the HDP declined sharply to 10.8% from 13.1% as violence escalated in the south-east between the two polls. The government, and probably the majority of the population too, sees the HDP as the political arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that have been fighting an insurgency against the state since 1984.

At the end of the day what matters is what people think about changing the constitution. And here the picture is a bit unclear. Any public opinion survey in Turkey should be taken with a grain of salt.

According to a survey by polling company AKAM carried out on November 9-17, only 36.5% said they would say “yes” to the presidential system in a referendum. That share is well below the 52% backing Erdogan managed to garner in the country’s first direct presidential election back in 2014. AKAM, on the other hand, estimated public support for the AKP at 45.6% while it put the MHP at 11.2%.

A&G, another polling company, found that public support for the presidential system was at 45% in October, up from 37.4% in June, while ORC estimated in October that as much as 55.9% of the Turks were in favour of the presidential rule. Andy-Ar puts the figure at 42%, whereas 38-40%, it says are against the proposed new system.

So popular backing for the constitutional change is far from clear, as is whether MHP voters will listen to Bahceli. The referendum remains a gamble for Erdogan, though he is used to risking all and defying the sceptics.