President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been in a tactical alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) since late 2015, which served three main purposes. First, it brought the nationalist and Islamist wings of Turkish politics together at a time of turmoil, when Ankara ended the Kurdish peace process, became more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, and suffered the consequences in the form of terrorist attacks. Second, it sustained this political consensus through the 2017 constitutional amendment referendum as well as the 2018 presidential and general elections, securing victories for Erdogan. Lastly, the MHP’s ultra-nationalist cadres have filled key government positions (especially ones related to security) in the aftermath of the Gulenist purges, enabling a relatively crisis-free transition in the bureaucracy.
However, this alliance is crumbling in the run-up to the 31 March 2019 local elections. On 28 October, Erdogan publicly declared that his side is willing to drop the alliance and run in the elections without the MHP’s support. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli responded in kind, suggesting that his party is ready to field its own candidates for the local elections.
In our view, this breakup happened for two reasons. First, the MHP did unexpectedly well in the June 2018 general elections. Initially, an alliance with Erdogan was unpopular among the MHP’s secular ranks. These progressives split in October 2017 to establish the Iyi Party under Meral Aksener’s leadership, but it ultimately failed to cripple the MHP; the latter still passed the 10% electoral threshold to hold seats in parliament. This successful performance not only bolstered Bahceli, but also those members who increasingly argued that the MHP no longer needed Erdogan to score a modest gain in the March 2019 local elections.
Second, the AKP-MHP alliance has fulfilled its role; there is a widespread sense in Turkey that the national security crisis has passed. Little unites the AKP and MHP at the grassroots level, and there is not much voter mobility between the two parties once security concerns subside. Several factors have allowed both parties to turn their focus to their individual electoral interests: a long absence of terrorist attacks, the stabilization of the border with Syria and Iraq, and intelligence reports indicating that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is becoming more willing to negotiate under Turkey’s terms. The AKP-MHP electoral cooperation recently broke down, with each failing to consult the other on candidates. This resulted in tit-for-tat unilateral nominations of candidates.
When the split is made formal, probably within a month, Ankara may become more open to a new Kurdish peace process. (By spring, Turkey and the PKK will have to make their annual decision of whether to re-engage in fighting in the mountains.) With terrorism reduced, the Syrian border stabilized, and the PKK isolated and under pressure in disparate pockets, Kurdish voters seem to recognize that peace is in Ankara’s hands, as opposed to the under-performing, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP). This is conducive ground for Ankara to restart talks from a position of strength. It makes sense for Erdogan to drop the MHP, a party that is categorically against any Kurdish peace process, before restarting talks.
Meanwhile, there is concern over how Erdogan will treat the new security bureaucracy, given the dominance of MHP-affiliated ultra-nationalist cadres in these positions. The principal worry is whether the AKP-MHP split might create another governance and security crisis similar to the Gulenist purges of 2016-2017. Both Erdogan and the MHP networks are strong, which might lead to a stalemate over important national security questions and generate further mistrust within the bureaucracy. In our view, however, there will be no rapid changeover in security posts. Erdogan is still not strong enough to rely purely on AKP party cadres and the army. He will need MHP securocrats for at least the next year, during which time Turkey will likely see sustained – and perhaps even improved – stability.