Divided nationalists hold key for Erdogan in Turkey vote

Raziye Akkoc and Gokan Gunes in Istanbul
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The top dissident member leading the 'No' wing of the the nationalists is former MHP leadership candidate, Meral Aksener, who rejects giving Erdogan more power

To mark the 20th anniversary this month of the death of Alparslan Turkes, the founder of modern Turkish nationalism, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited his grave in Ankara and offered up prayers.

Turkes, who founded the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in 1969 and remained its chairman until his death in 1997, is still an icon for nationalists known simply as the "basbug" (chieftain).

The visit to the grave of Turkes, the spokesman of the 1960 military coup that led to the hanging of Erdogan's political idol, former premier Adnan Menderes, may seem surprising and even contradictory.

The MHP is a party in opposition to Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) with, in theory, a starkly different ideology.

But it has become an unlikely ally in Erdogan's quest for a presidential system to enhance his powers. Nationalist votes will be crucial in ensuring a 'Yes' vote in the referendum on Sunday on the constitution.

- 'Number one Grey Wolf' -

The task is complicated by a split in the MHP between those following its enigmatic leader Devlet Bahceli -- who has led the party since Turkes' death and backs the new system -- and an influential dissident faction which does not.

The votes of nationalists are crucial for the executive presidential system to be approved, said Samim Akgonul, researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

In another act of stunning political symbolism, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim astonished observers by making the special hand sign of the Grey Wolves -- the radical wing of the MHP with a reputation for street violence -- in a speech in Ankara.

"Erdogan must convince the nationalists that he is the first of the Grey Wolves," Akgonul told AFP.

Bahceli's backing of the executive presidency has caused the schism within the MHP, with several members of the party, including lawmakers, dismissed for failing to toe the 'Yes' line.

The top dissident member leading the 'No' wing of the the nationalists is former MHP leadership candidate, Meral Aksener, who was also a former interior minister in the 1990s.

A capable orator who sports a henna tattoo of the Turkish flag on the inside of her hand, Aksener has been holding rallies nationwide with the slogan: "80 million times no" referring to the country's population.

- 'Nationalists must say no' -

MHP supporter Omer Cakiroglu told AFP at an Aksener rally in Istanbul that the party's grassroots were not supporting the changes to the constitution, despite what the top brass had agreed.

"I cannot believe that a nationalist would not say 'No'," the 55-year-old told AFP, adding he was there in support of the 'No' campaign rather than Aksener.

Another prominent dissident MHP figure is the dynamic Sinan Ogan, who was ejected from the party last month

"Over 90 percent of nationalists will say no," Ogan said in an interview in Ankara, after clashes hit one of his rallies on March 26.

Former MHP lawmaker Nuri Okutan -- dismissed at the same time as Ogan -- said that if a 'Yes' vote was agreed the party would end up losing all significance as an opposition force.

"If this referendum passes, the losers will be the nationalists and the MHP," Okutan added.

- 'Nationalism will be stronger' -

The deputy chairman of the MHP, Mehmet Gunal, dismissed such arguments as claims made up by bitter ex-members.

"Now they are trying to make a fuss because they have been kicked out," Gunal told AFP. "Nationalism will be stronger, the Nationalist Movement Party will be stronger."

"As a 48-year-old party, the MHP has always been here, it is the ideological base of Turkish nationalists, their political representative."

Burak Bilgehan Ozpek, associate professor of international relations at Ankara's TOBB University, said a 'Yes' vote would mean the end of the opposition within the MHP.

Some have suggested that with the office of the prime minister to be extinguished under the new system, Bahceli could become a vice president.

"Bahceli on this issue will have every kind of legal, political and bureaucratic support," Ozpek said.

"In the event of a 'Yes', Aksener especially will have to found a new party and start from scratch," he added.