Osman Orsal / Reuters 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.

Turkey's Wolf Pack

Can the MHP Change Politics?

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 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.

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