“Opposition” Parties in the Muslim World: The Case of Turkey

Developing Just Leadership

Tahir Mustafa

Shawwal 09, 1441 2020-06-01

Special Reports

by Tahir Mustafa (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 4, Shawwal, 1441)

The Muslim masses and informed observers are aware that most regimes in the Muslim world are in power primarily due to their allegiance to NATO states. However, what is often overlooked is the fact that in many instances even the so-called “opposition parties” constitute an internal pyramid for pro-Western dictatorships to function, utilizing the veneer of a legitimate government. In many countries such opposition forces function as socio-political control valves.

In Egypt, it was Moussa Mostafa Moussa acting as a “legitimizer” by pretending to be a rival to Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the 2018 presidential “elections.” In countries like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan the so-called “mainstream opposition” parties fulfil the roles of social distractors.

While in primitive autocratic systems like Egypt, Morocco or Azerbaijan the control valve function of “opposition” parties is obvious and requires no great mental agility, in Turkey, the system is more sophisticated. Undoubtedly, Turkey is one of the very few Muslim countries with an authentic internal socio-political process and an elected government. Nevertheless, its political set-up was greatly influenced by NATO regimes.

During the Cold War, Turkey was utilized as a bulwark against communism due to its geopolitical significance and the fact that the USSR had a large Turkic population in Central Asia. Therefore, political process within Turkey greatly mattered to Western regimes for both political and economic reasons. Ideological angle also played an important role, using the concept of Pan-Turkism, NATO regimes tried to foster separatism within the Turkic people living in Russia (USSR), China and Iran.

One of the key control valves within Turkish politics has been Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and its youth-movement/paramilitary wing known as the Gray Wolves. This is a militant political organization, which has allowed various Turkish governments to push narratives and policies within Turkey and abroad without direct link and responsibility.

Until 2016, the MHP’s connection to Turkey’s state institutions was carefully camouflaged. However, in 2016 when the police sealed off a hotel in Ankara to prevent dissidents within MHP from holding a party congress which would elect a chairman opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans for more power, MHP’s place within Turkish politics was exposed.

The MHP’s connection to the Turkish government is not merely political, it has a military security angle as well. On April 16, Turkey released the notorious gangster and former intelligence services hit-man, Alaattin Cakici, who was a hired-gun for the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT). During the 1980s and 1990s Cakici was used against leftists, Kurdish and Armenian nationalist groups. While this became openly known during Cakici’s court proceedings in 2000, in 2018, Cakici was described as a hero by the MHP leader Devlet Bahceli when he visited the gangster in hospital during his incarceration period.

Overall, MHP’s connection to Turkish state institutions goes beyond sympathies and tactical cooperation. To understand the depth of MHP’s interaction with the Turkish state it should be remembered that it was founded by Colonel Alparslan Türkeş (born Hüseyin Feyzullah), who orchestrated a military coup in Turkey in 1960. Türkeş later became deputy prime minister of Turkey for a short period of time in the 1970s and was received by European politicians when he was simply chairman of MHP with quite a small presence in the Turkish parliament.

Those familiar with Turkish politics prior to the rise of the AKP, will remember the place of Turkish military within the West’s geopolitical and security architecture of the Middle East. In 1998, declassified documents publicized by the LA Times showed that “the Gray Wolves operated with encouragement and protection of the Counter-Guerrilla Organization, a section of the Turkish Army’s Special Warfare Department. Working out of the US Military Aid Mission building in Ankara, the Special Warfare Department received funds and training from US advisors to establish “stay behind” squads of civilian irregulars who were set up to engage in acts of sabotage and resistance in the event of a Soviet invasion. Similar Cold War counter-guerrilla units were created in every member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But instead of preparing for foreign enemies, these operatives often set their sights on domestic targets.”

Today, due to the AKP’s broad popular support compared to any other political party in Turkey over the past 30 years, MHP’s role as a political catalyst or a control valve has been considerably reduced. Nevertheless, the party is still influential due to nationalism’s importance in Turkish political culture. Nationalism is part of both the left and right political spectrum and MHP came to symbolize it within the post-Ottoman Turkish political culture.

What makes the AKP-led government cautious of the MHP is its strong secular orientation. It appeals to a constituency that still has sizable presence in Turkey. Also, the party retains deep ties to the once powerful Western-backed military establishment. These factors allow the MHP to voice narratives which are not supported by the wider Turkish society. For example in 2014, Deputy Chair of MHP, Tuğrul Türkeş, called on Ankara to normalize relations with Zionist Israel and al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt. This despite the fact that both regimes are greatly despised by the Turkish population. Why would the MHP put forward such an unpopular idea?

It is an open secret that under Erdogan, Turkey’s relations with Israel in terms of public rhetoric are bad, but there is brisk inter-state trade. Thus, using the MHP as a mouthpiece, the ruling AKP was pushing an idea in the mind of its leadership, one that was not popular with the AKP’s Islamic oriented constituency.

The MHP fulfilled a similar role for Turkey’s secular rulers in the past. It would position itself as a conservative Turkish party with a sprinkle of Islam and voice more religious ideas in Turkish public life which would bring in some of the religious constituency into the political playing field controlled by secularists. It thus fulfilled its role as a socio-political control valve.

The MHP is unlikely to regain its pivotal status in Turkish politics, but the organization will remain a potent tool of state institutions to manage the internal dynamics of Turkey’s politics. The MHP is an institution dedicated to Turkish statehood and will not overstep the authority of the state. This is one of the reasons why the MHP did not support the attempted military coup in 2016 led by the Gulenist cult. The MHP is unlikely to take nonconformist approaches without prior authorization from the government, no matter which political party holds office.

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