Leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and government ally Devlet Bahçeli has been keeping a low-profile due to health reasons. For some time now, Bahçeli has only been issuing written statements. Still, Bahçeli has recently drawn attention with outbursts. He has actively participated in debates over the Gülenists' political legacy and has harshly castigated the opposition, especially its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Bahçeli has lashed out against the formation of new parties by ex-members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). His party also re-asserted its determination to sustain the "presidential system" and its alliance with the AKP. Bahçeli has lent support to President Erdoğan in foreign policy matters. One can interpret Bahçeli's overly active stance as an attempt to make up for his inactivity due to health reasons.
Yet it should not forgotten that Bahçeli is often the political actor that brings crucial issues to the table first. Besides, the AKP-MHP and Erdoğan-Bahçeli relationships is shaped by factors beyond politics.
Recent information has come out that suggests the MHP might take up a new role in the government alliance. Lobby talks revealed MHP members are to be sought for local administration recruits and revisions in some of the AKP's rural branches.
As Erdoğan and Bahçeli move against the newly formed parties, they will thoroughly re-assess the symbiotic relationship between their two parties. Erdoğan's recent visits to religious sects and provocative statements regarding religious sensitivities as well as the government's increasingly virulent anti-secular rhetoric have sparked debates - including that on the limits of the AKP-MHP alliance.
Obvious efforts have been made to stir the alliance toward the pious-conservative side of the nationalist spectrum. A recent interview Ahmet Davutoğlu conducted with the Karar Daily, a former PM and the head of the newly founded "Future Party", gave the impression the MHP partnership constituted the AKP's Achilles' heel. It wouldn't surprising to see Ali Babacan, another ex-AKP figure on the verge of forming an opposition party, corner the AKP on the Kurdish stance.
Recent polls demonstrate there are no dramatic changes in the vote sahre for the government and opposition blocks. Yet that does not entail stability in voting behavior. The AKP's nuclear and urban/young vote segments have been loosening up.
In a survey carried by the research center Metropoll, 34.4 of respondents said they would vote for the AKP. 8.2 said they would vote for the MHP. Such figures mirror the election results for 2002 - 34.4 percent for the AKP and 8.4 percent for the MHP.
Kadir Has University also conducted a survey which showed that support for the MHP stood at 8.3 percent while support for the AKP was at 40.2 percent. Other surveys supported those figures which indicates the MHP is the losing party in the government alliance.
Up until recently, it was said that, despite the erosion in the support base of the alliance, the MHP maintained an advantageous position in the alliance. Moreover, it had been collecting votes from the shift within the alliance. But the recent data shows that the decline in the AKP has also started to drag the MHP down.
Whilst looking at the MHP's performance in the past 25 years, its current rate of support is close to that of 2002 when it came under the parliamentary threshold of 10 percent. That had come after the party had surprisingly won 18 percent of the votes in 1999. Its drastic fall implied it could only rely on its core supporters.
During the first years of the AKP, the MHP was fiercely opposed to its EU and Kurdish policies - which benefited the AKP. Later, the MHP recovered, winning 14 percent of the vote in 2007 and 13 percent in 2011. In 2015, the party garnered 16.3 of the votes, doubling the amount it had won in 2002 and nearing its 1999 breakthrough.
After the 2015 general elections, Bahçeli closed all coalition options, paving the way for not only renewing the elections - but also for the current presidential system and alliance. Yet this political maneuver, while having born its fruits, is now taking its toll.
In the wake of the People’s Alliance (Cumhur ittifakı) between the AKP and the MHP, the 2016 coup attempt and the 2017 referendum have outlined today’s political landscape. It was Bahçeli’s influence and decisiveness that led the government to call for early elections, hold the referendum on the presidency and start political quarrels with the opposition.
The MHP used the benefits of governing without forming a classic coalition. That made Erdoğan bound to the party though it could still act freely without being exposed to power erosion.
In the June 2018 general elections, despite the votes that went to the İYİ (Good) Party, about 4 to 5 percent, the MHP was able to gain 11 percent of the votes. The MHP thus demonstrated it did not lose as many votes as the AKP, and that it had in fact stolen some votes from it.
The MHP proved that it would not merge with the AKP as it was claimed, or be swallowed by it. It showed that the exact opposite was possible.
Aware of the cracks within his party, Erdoğan attempted to enter the local elections alone, but Bahçeli prevented him from doing so with personal attacks. As a result of these complications, the careful balance Bahçeli had maintained from the government crumbled. Bahçeli had to undertake spokesperson positions for the sake of the government's political strategy. It had to relinquish its advantages. And when the MHP got too close to the AKP, they began to sink together.
That is what the survey carried out by Kadir Has University shows. The MHP has gone further than AKP figures on defending the government's policies. For instance, the number of MHP members that consider the government’s economy performance as successful is higher than that of the AKP.
The same goes for the government's foreign and Kurdish policies. The MHP is content with the government's overall performance. Yet this concerns a core grassroot segment of the MHP base, and one that is regressing. The party has alienated itself from the country's coastal areas and mega cities due to the advent of the İYİ Party and its close relationship with the government. Its support base is also rapidly shrinking in rural areas. In those same regions, the AKP is losing way.
While political alliances rely first and foremost on parties themselves, they also depend on political dynamics. And those dynamics are shifting.