Back in 2002, the AKP came to power in Turkey with the help of a unique, value-based coalition. It encompassed liberals, Islamists, Milli Görüş (a nationalist-Islamist movement), and even some social democrats. It was this catch-all platform that carried the AKP to power.
As time passed, it became harder for Erdoğan to keep this colorful coalition together. Various events drove certain parts of the coalition away. For example, the crackdown on the Gezi protests made many liberals in the coalition feel uneasy, and they started to part ways with the AKP. After this break came the rift with the Gülenists, which caused major turbulence not only in the ruling coalition, but in Turkey as a whole. This turbulence culminated in a botched coup by the Gülenists that officially turned them into internal enemy number one and excluded them from the ruling coalition.
Erdoğan’s AKP has won every battle so far as various parts of the coalition have broken away; however, each battle has left new scars. Every time the AKP lost another part of its coalition, the more politically introverted and leader-oriented it became. Following the June 2015 elections, when the AKP lost its single-party majority in the parliament for the first time (which Erdoğan read as a consequence of his attempts to mend relations with Turkey’s Kurds), the ruling establishment took a new strategic direction for the coalition.
Erdoğan started investing a large amount of political capital in building what is almost a personality cult, while at the same time securing the majority in the elections through a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The president of Turkey is certainly one of the most unique leaders in contemporary Turkish politics. What’s more, he managed to build and strengthen his personal followership, which in large part can be described as fanatical. However, building this personality-based support has also had inevitable consequences for the party. The days when the AKP was able to win close to 50 percent of the vote seem to be over. In this sense, Erdoğan-led AKP rule seems to be following a textbook example of the destiny of most authoritarian, leader-based rule.
However, the current ruling coalition’s junior member seems to be taking its kingmaker role very seriously. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, whose name ironically means “the state,” behaves as though he paved the way for the presidential system and Erdoğan’s last electoral victory. As a politician always hungry for state power, Bahçeli knew how to cash in on this role. In the last couple of years, the MHP and its trusted cadres have been awarded many powerful positions within the state bureaucracy and even in the security sector and the military. On top of this, the new coalition also opened up a political risk for Erdoğan – his new coalition partner has become an acceptable “secondary voting choice” for an increasing number of AKP voters.
It is now obvious that the alliance with Bahçeli is different for Erdoğan than the alliance he had with the Gülenists or liberals. Cynics joke that Bahçeli has been in Turkish politics since the beginning of time; he knows the state system in its tiniest details, and now has supporters within the bureaucracy. Erdoğan’s electoral gambit seemed to have brought short-term successes, but at the same time, it has built an unwanted dependency on a very serious new player.
Some of the latest developments in the country can be understood through this lens. After ousting his own son-in-law and Minister of Finance Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan came out and unexpectedly promised reforms publicly. He promised to revive the rule of law and defined Turkey’s strategic path as the path to the EU. These refreshing statements caused excitement among some of the old big wigs of the AKP.
Bülent Arınç, one of the founders of the AKP, who was until recently a presidential advisor and is a man who Erdoğan calls his “abi” (big brother), appeared on a TV show last week. He spoke there after a long period of silence and mentioned many things, including some of the taboos for Turkey’s public discourse. Arınç discussed some of the most emblematic human rights cases in Turkey, like the imprisonment of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş. He called the indictment of Kavala “an embarrassment for the Turkish judiciary” and advised everyone to read Demirtaş’ book. It was as though the “abi” felt that his prodigal little brother had finally come back from where they both started and gave him a sign that he could announce a great comeback.
However, very quickly, Arınç was on the receiving end of a chain reaction he probably did not anticipate. The first reaction came from Bahçeli’s advisor, who slammed Arınç on Twitter. Erdoğan then followed this by denouncing Arınç’s statements, and explicitly stated that Kavala and Demirtaş would stay in prison for the crimes they allegedly committed. This probably-unexpected backlash ultimately resulted in Arınç’s resignation from the office of the presidency. Whether or not this would have happened had MHP not been in the ruling coalition is hard to say, but it was obvious where the initial hit over even a mention of reform came from.
The new coalition Erdoğan has built helped the president win some of his most crucial electoral battles, but it seems to be forcing him to give up on some of his older and more personal alliances. Since the MHP has proven to be a tough ally, Erdoğan has been pushed to detach himself even from his old friends within the AKP. Besides taking the route of a classical authoritarian leader by centralizing all political power in the presidency and stripping even his own party of its democratically-won decision making authority, Erdoğan now has to worry about the growing influence of the MHP, which, if it decided to, could easily flip the power dynamics in Turkey.