The sultan's silent partner

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum win and his alliance with the Nationalist Party are another nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE MOOD in Turkey following the dramatic referendum that turned the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential regime is still turbulent. The tight result – a “yes” vote of 51.3 percent edging out a “no” vote of 48.7 percent – of a referendum held amid a state of emergency in place since a failed coup in July 2016 means the outcome has been highly controversial.
Outside observers, particularly in Europe, complained that the opposition had been limited in its ability to cam- paign, and democratic standards were not maintained.
That controversy was compounded when Turkey’s central elections committee ruled – in violation of its own laws – that 2.5 million voting envelopes without an official stamp should be admitted.
Nevertheless, most analysts agree that the results are irreversible. The Turkish authorities will not allow the result to be overturned, and its effects will be with us for a long time. Total control of the country has been transferred to the presidential palace, the seat of the 63-year-old Erdoğan who has ruled Turkey both as president and prime minister for the past 15 years and is likely to continue to do so for the next 12.
Now that Erdoğan has won the referendum, public discussion is shifting from a debate regarding the validity of the vote to one about the impact of the concentration of power in one man’s hands – even though that man has been a known quantity to Turkish voters for the past 23 years, ever since he was first elected mayor of Istanbul before achieving the premiership and presidency.
When addressing that question, one must first ask who really won the referendum, or, more precisely, was Erdoğan the sole winner? The answer is no.
Back on the eve of the 2015 general elections, Erdoğan was forced to look for a political partner. He chose Devlet Bahçeli, the chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) needed the MHP to gain a decisive majority in parliament and this winning coalition remained in place for the constitutional referendum. Together, as a Nationalist-Islamist bloc, Erdoğan and Bahçeli led Turkey to the presidential regime.
Paradoxically, it is the fact that their victory was by the tightest of margins which makes their partnership so significant. The 69-year-old Bahçeli, a singularly uncharismatic politician, handed Erdoğan the victory in the referendum and made him Turkey’s sultan.
So who is Devlet Bahçeli? What are his main policy positions? And, most importantly, will Erdoğan retain his gratitude or will he dump him at the first opportunity he becomes politically expedient? Bahçeli, an economics lecturer at Ankara’s Gazi University, was first elected to the governing board of the MHP in 1987, and a decade later became the party’s chairman following the death of its founder Alparslan Türkes, the father of modern Turkish ultra-nationalism. From 1999 to 2002, Bahçeli was deputy prime minister in the government of Bülent Ecevit.
A look back at those years shows that Bahçeli was stringently opposed to Turkey joining the European Union and to the annulment of the death penalty in the country. The two are connected because the existence of the death penalty in Turkey was, at the time, a significant obstacle to the country joining the EU.
In the summer of 2002, following a coalition crisis, Bahçeli led the MHP out of the government, and, soon after, a new coalition was constructed that cancelled the death penalty and took a series of other steps that paved the way for Turkey and the EU to commence accession talks in October 2005.
Bahçeli would certainly like to see the death penalty restored in the hope it could be applied to Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader who has been jailed in Turkey for the past 18 years.
Furthermore, Bahçeli and the MHP are longtime opponents of any additional collective rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority ‒ they justify the “transfer” of Turkey’s Armenian population in 1915-1916 (which ended up with 1.5 million Armenians killed) and they also used to demand that Turkey retake control of the city of Mosul, Iraq, and its oil reserves, an area that was once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkish nationalists, like their ideological counterparts throughout Europe, do not like minorities and migrants. They also want to see a strengthening of connections between the motherland and the Turkish diaspora.
None of this would matter if the nationalists had not handed the sultanate to Erdoğan on a silver platter in the referendum. But a first sign of their importance was seen immediately after the referendum when Erdoğan put renewing the death penalty at the top of his agenda – a move that clearly puts an end to any possibility of Turkey joining the EU.
It is worth noting that at least until a few years ago, Erdoğan saw joining the EU as his top policy priority. That picture gradually changed as the Turkish economy grew stronger, Europe grew weaker and Turkey’s human rights situation deteriorated, culminating in the purges that followed the failed 2016 coup.
Will Erdoğan keep the promises he made to Bahçeli as they built their Nationalist- Islamic alliance? Or, will he find a way to turn his back on his partner and build new political alliances? The fact that the margin of victory in the referendum was so narrow and the vote so controversial limits Erdoğan’s room for maneuvering. The split with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), which refuses to accept the referendum results, seems unbridgeable, as do the AKP’s relations with the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The referendum took place with HDP chairman Selhattin Demirtaş in prison on charges of cooperation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s renewed war on the Kurds over the past couple of years is seen by the Kurds themselves and many in the international community as a step in the construction of a Nationalist-Islamist alliance that has enabled Erdoğan to become a sultan. Thus, a rapprochement with the Kurds is difficult to imagine in the foreseeable future.
We are left, then, with Bahçeli, the silent partner who does not steal the limelight from his boss, but is ideologically motivat - ed with a clear agenda that is very far from the one Erdoğan held at the beginning of his political career.
Reinstatement of the death penalty is, therefore, something we should watch for. If Erdoğan goes ahead with his plans to bring back the death penalty, either via parliament or another referendum, the Nationalist-Islamist alliance will have been strengthened.
If, on the other hand, Erdoğan reneges on the idea and resumes peace talks with the Kurds, the partnership with Bahçeli will collapse. In that event, Erdoğan will have to find another political partner ahead of the 2019 elections. The experience of the last few years shows he cannot achieve an absolute majority in parliament and total control for his party without such a partner.
Although there have been suggestions that Erdoğan will opt to turn back to the Kurds, this is an almost impossible scenario.
The current Kurdish leadership, which is liberal and pro-European, will have serious difficulty in joining forces with the Sultan. The Kurdish people are altogether on the rise with positive momentum in Iraq and Syria; the Syrian Kurds, for the first time, now have significant territorial assets and, while the Turkish grip on the Kurds in the southeast of Turkey has tightened, they now have more allies in the region and around the world.
It might be a grave error on the part of the Turkish Kurds to crawl into the arms of the all-powerful Turkish leader at a time when he is moving away at lightning speed from the democratic standards of the free world. Furthermore, if Erdoğan were to drop Bahçeli after the dowry given to him by the latter, why should the Kurds believe in him – he could after all drop them in turn.
Erdoğan is without a doubt a political genius with a sixth sense of how to maintain his power. For that reason, one can assume he will choose to hold on to the so far successful alliance with the MHP, and the Kurds will have to seek to achieve their aims through struggle rather than partnership with the new sultan.
Alon  Liel  was  Israel's  chargé  d’affaires  in  Turkey  and  is  the  author  of  ‘Demo  Islam, Turkey's New Regime.’ He is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry.