A supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), waves the party flag during an election rally for Turkey's general election on November 1, in Istanbul, Turkey October 18, 2015.
Osman Orsal / Reuters

It was 2011. Turkey was preparing for general elections, and a couple of young supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a small opposition outfit, looked glum. I asked them what was wrong.

“There are rumors,” said one, that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) “will open the Hagia Sophia for prayers.” The Hagia Sophia is the holiest site from the time of the Ottoman Empire. Either of these guys would gladly scrub it clean with a broken toothbrush if it were ever restored for worship. So shouldn’t they be happy?

“Well, if the AK Party actually does this,” said the other, “we really don’t know how we would not vote for them.”

The MHP did not do well in that election or in numerous votes since. Even so, observers in Turkey and abroad are saying that the party could restore balance to Turkish politics. There are a few reasons for its raised profile.

Turkey’s current parliament, with two parties on the left and two on the right, represents 97.44 percent of the popular vote. On the left, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) represents a secularist Kemalist modernism. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has a liberal element that stresses minority rights, but it mainly represents Kurdish nationalism and is resentful of the republic's emphasis on Turkishness. Kemalist modernism and Kurdish nationalism clash, and except for a sliver of anti-AKP urban liberals, there is little overlap between the parties’ constituencies. The right is different. Both parties favor strong Sunni Muslim and nationalist identities, with the AKP emphasizing Islam and the MHP emphasizing Turkishness. Their voter bases are close enough that the parties have to compete for share.

For a long time, the AKP has triumphed in that battle. It has argued that its success is based on the fact that Islam is a more widely shared and inclusive identity than Turkishness. Former AKP Chairman Ahmet Davutoğlu frequently mocked MHP Chairman Devlet Bahçeli for what he considered an ideological handicap. “Could the MHP ever consider staging election rallies in Eastern Turkey?” he asked rhetorically during a speech in April 2016, implying that the Turkish nationalism of the MHP would be unwelcome in the Kurdish-dominated southeast of the country.

There is truth in Davutoğlu’s words. The MHP, and the nationalist movement associated with it, are not an approachable bunch. Their core supporters are called ülkücü, which roughly translates as “idealist.” They have a nationwide network of youth organizations called ülkü ocakları (idealist hearths) and are known by a certain stereotype: handlebar mustaches, cheap suits, jingoistic songs—“I would die to the flow of your rivers, my Turkey”—and the sign of the mythical Turkic wolf. Young ülkücü have a reputation for being quick to anger and uninterested in nuance.

Like many stereotypes, there is some truth to this one. The ülkücü are something of an exclusive tribe. Being at an MHP rally and not performing the wolf sign, for example, can be awkward.

Despite its rough exterior, however, the MHP is not a fascist or extreme-right movement. Unlike far-right movements in Europe, the MHP’s core philosophy is enthusiastically inclusive. The Turkishness that ülkücü talk about has little to do with ethnicity. There are ülkücü of Albanian, Circassian, Kurdish, and many other origins who see no contradiction between their ethnic identities and their political affiliation as Turks. There are even black ülkücü among the small African Turkish population on the Aegean. They trace their origins to the Ottoman slave trade.

The diversity among the ülkücü’s ranks has to do with the MHP’s definition of Turkish identity. A narrow conception of Turkishness would refer to ethnic origin. A broader one might take into consideration language and cultural identity. But the intellectual elite at the heart of the MHP sees Turkishness as going even beyond those markers. Rather, it is a political identity. According to this line of thinking, a Turkish citizen can be ethnically Kurdish and politically Turkish, merely by being loyal to the state. On the other hand, a culturally and ethnically Turkish member of the Islamic State (ISIS) would not be politically Turkish because he or she would be in rebellion against the Turkish state.

The ülkücü have embraced Mustafa Celaleddin Pasha, an Ottoman soldier and important figure in Turkish nationalism, who was of Polish descent. A more recent example is Levon Panos Dabağyan, an Armenian Christian ülkücü who was a close friend of Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the MHP. Many intellectuals who are sympathetic to the MHP are even uncomfortable that the term milliyetçi in their party’s name is generally translated as “nationalist.” They associate European nationalism with racism and exclusivity, while Turkishness, they feel, is about loyalty to the state.

If you’ve been following Turkish politics, however, you’re unlikely to have heard any inclusive rhetoric from MHP lips. Today, the MHP is best known not for what it stands for, but what it stands against: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the militant Kurdish group that MHP sees as the ultimate traitor to the Turkish political project.

For now, the more inclusive strains of the ülkücü movement are somewhat hidden because of the party’s lack of leadership. The MHP’s sitting MPs are by far the oldest in parliament and are also the most ideologically obdurate. They proved their mettle in the campus violence in the 1970s. They endured torture at the hands of the police during the 1980 coup. Their position within the movement is beyond reproach, which gives them little incentive to expand their party.

This trend is exemplified in Bahçeli, who has been at the party’s helm since 1997. His career peaked in 1999, when he earned 18 percent of the popular vote and was part of a fragile coalition government. His most notable accomplishment since 1999, however, has been to keep his party separate from the AKP, which has dominated politics and could well have absorbed the group.

But his presence has hollowed out the party, with its gap between a pugnacious grassroots and a lonely elite. Its wide network in the bureaucracy, which once made it an influential power broker in Ankara, has been partially co-opted by the AKP. What the MHP lacks more than anything else is a wide middle-class support that could carry it to government.

There is now a possibility of that changing. In the November 2015 elections, the MHP gained even fewer seats than the HDP, a party it also sees as a traitor to the state. Party bosses are immensely powerful in Turkey and do not typically resign even after humiliating election losses, nor are they usually deposed by their parties. The November election loss, however, was hard to swallow and an insurgency within the party started to take shape.

Several younger leaders collected signatures to initiate an emergency MHP congress, with Bahçeli—supported by the AKP media—fighting them in court every step of the way. The insurgents turned out to be on firm legal ground, however, and have gradually been wresting power away from Behçeli. On May 22, they staged a demonstration in front of the hotel where they planned to hold their congress. They gathered 20,000 people; the counterdemonstration supporting Bahçeli in front of MHP headquarters in Ankara managed to rally fewer than 200 people. When the courts allowed the insurgents to finally hold their first extraordinary congress on June 19, they were able to document that well over a majority of the party’s delegates were present, despite Bahçeli’s absence and his condemnation of the event as null and void. The next extraordinary congress is due to elect a new chairman of the party among the insurgents.

At these events, the ülkücü are rallying around a handful of new candidates for party leader, including Sinan Oğan, Koray Aydın, Ümit Özdağ, and Meral Akşener. Out of the group, Akşener stands out for having attracted by far the most interest of the national media and the most ire from Bahçeli. A former minister of the interior during a center-right coalition government, she is known for her stance against the generals during the “postmodern coup” of February 28, 1997. As a woman in a male-dominated political scene, Akşener made her reputation as a fierce polemicist and ruthless strategizer. For the past six months, she has been traveling across the country to rally the MHP’s base and brandish her ülkücü credentials. She is often greeted by chants of “Prime Minister Meral!” and endearingly referred to as “abla,” meaning “older sister.”

Akşener has hinted, however, that if she becomes chairwoman of the party, she will move to the political center to contend for AKP votes. During a recent speech, Akşener’s message was different from what MHP supporters are used to hearing. “Our government will be like the family feasts we have on holidays across this country. Our grandfathers, aunts, and uncles will join with our daughters, who may wear headscarves or who may dye their hair purple. We will welcome our ülkücü sons and also our sons who may have tattoos and earrings. All will benefit from the blessing of the meal.” But she remains characteristically tough on the PKK. “If there is someone at the table eating and drinking, yet breaking our plates, so help me God,” she railed, “we will break their hands!” In other places, some attending her rallies came with flags depicting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularizing founder of the republic, alongside green flags of Islamic scripture. Added to that ideological range, her rallies have also observed strong turnout among women. Considering that 60 percent of MHP voters are men, that alone could have a huge impact on the MHP’s fortunes.

The downside of Akşener’s popularity has been that she receives some sympathy from the anti-Erdoğan left, as well as from the Gülenists, a movement that has been declared an enemy of the state. This is to be expected. These groups know that Turkey’s two leftist parties have almost no chance of beating the AKP in an election, and would welcome the division of right-wing votes through a resurgent MHP. Their enthusiasm about Akşener, however, is radioactive—it opens her up to Islamist and nationalist accusations of being sympathetic to the “old Turkey” vision of the Kemalists, or, worse, being a Trojan horse of the Gülenists.

The other candidates are uneasy about Akşener’s popularity. Aydın is known for having challenged Bahçeli in 2012, but now barely gets a mention. Özdağ is a powerful speaker and popular among the more owlish ülkücü, but the youthful Oğan has broader support, and appears to be the runner-up to Akşener. Still, the “older sister” has a comfortable lead. During the elections for council chairman at the insurgents’ first party congress, Akşener’s candidate Müsavat Dervişoğlu received 456 votes, while the candidate of the rest combined, Hasan Hüseyin Türkoğlu, only received 170.

If, as now seems likely, Akşener or another capable candidate takes the helm of the MHP, Turkey’s national politics could change. For the first time in the AKP era, a viable and hungry right-wing political movement would challenge its rule. To succeed in its battle, the MHP would have to come out of its ideological shell and fight the AKP for its center-right votes. Even a limited success in this regard could restore some balance to Turkish politics, strengthen the rule of law, and reduce corruption.

The MHP could do worse than to listen to the words of Turkey’s most accomplished living politician, uttered in August 2014. “Elections in this country have been conducted in a transparent manner since 1950. None should despair. The ballot box will always remain a place where the people can exercise their will. It is obvious that the opposition has to renew itself, and that polarization is no way to conduct an opposition.”

Erdoğan was right, of course.