Sibel Oktay: “The MHP is not the Puppet Master of the AKP’s Foreign Policy”

The MHP is not necessarily pulling the AKP towards any particular policy position. The AKP would have taken all these steps in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean even if the MHP weren’t in the picture.

Sibel Oktay: “The MHP is not the Puppet Master of the AKP’s Foreign Policy”

Sibel Oktay is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Aside from her forthcoming book, Governing Abroad: Coalition Politics and Foreign Policy in Europe (University of Michigan Press), her research has been published in the European Journal of Political Researchthe British Journal of Politics and International RelationsJournal of European Public Policy, and European Security, among others.

Mehmet Yegin (MY): What do we know about junior coalition parties’ influence on foreign policy in Turkey? Where does the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) fit in this picture?

Sibel Oktay (SO): Generally, junior partners in minimum winning coalition governments (as is the case with the MHP) can employ a type of veto power. In this type of coalition, the leading party cannot act in a policy arena without the consent of all other actors. Projecting that definition to today’s Turkish politics, the current People’s Alliance (Cumhur Ittifakı), somewhat resembles a minimum winning coalition. If you remove the MHP from this coalition then the alliance would no longer have an electoral advantage.

There is also an ideational factor, however, in that junior partners may not always be interested in foreign policy, even if such parties are existentially important for the viability of the government. If they do not have interest in foreign policy, they may opt for logrolling tactics, basically engaging in quid pro quo or trading of favors. For example, the junior partner may not be interested in foreign policy but might be very interested in some other issue area, as is the case with the MHP. So, the MHP is not necessarily against Erdogan’s incursions in Libya, but it really wants the government to act decisively on the on the Kurdish issue. In other words, it may go along with the foreign policy choices of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in return for its consent, for example, in crushing Kurdish opposition in the country by keeping members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in prison.

MY: Per your analysis, the MHP seems to have a certain level of leverage but is not really interested in foreign policy. But looking at Turkey’s current military confrontations, most of the adversaries are actually the ultimate “others” of Turkish nationalists, i.e. the Kurds, Armenians, and Greeks. Is that a coincidence?

SO: As a researcher studying coalition politics, I think, in 2015, the MHP made the biggest political mistake of any political party in Turkish politics. In the aftermath of the June 2015 elections, leader of the MHP Devlet Bahceli said that his party was not going to join a coalition. I cannot make sense of this move, because if Bahceli had joined a government, the MHP would have had greater influence and leverage over Turkish politics and policymaking. At this point there was still a parliamentary system in Turkey. Bahceli would have had the power to blackmail, and then to pull out when his demands were not met. His party would have also probably held more powerful positions within the government. Since 2015, the MHP has been maintaining this strange coalition with the AKP without enjoying any of the perks of legitimate, visible, and credible say in the running of the government. This is quite difficult to make sense of.

I don’t know MHP’s foreign policy objectives, and I don’t think anybody knows. People assume and claim that the MHP has a foreign policy platform and that it has some preferences, but none of these claims actually hold any water. They fail to clarify or define what this platform is and what those policy preferences are. Thus, I do not think that the MHP is necessarily pulling the AKP towards any particular policy position. The MHP is not the puppet master of the AKP’s foreign policy. The AKP would have taken all these steps in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean even if the MHP weren’t in the picture.

This is also applicable to the Kurdish peace process (Çözüm Süreci). When the process was first unfolding, the MHP was not necessarily on the scene. The only reason that the process was abandoned was because the AKP was losing its popular majority and because of HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas’s remark to Erdogan, in that “we will never make you president.” The MHP was not a force that pushed the AKP to abandon the peace process. The AKP was going to abandon the Kurdish peace process and was going to antagonize the Kurds regardless of the MHP’s part in this strange alliance.

There are three reasons for the aforementioned military activism in Turkish foreign policy. First, Turkey has always wanted more regional influence and its recent moves are a good way to demonstrate this. Second, it obviously strengthens the government’s domestic position. These adventures in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh are framed in terms of national interest and national security. Through such a strategy, it is easy to rally people around your cause, including those people who support the opposition political parties such as the People’s Republican Party (CHP). Third, these foreign adventures are also helping the government to keep the military busy, especially after the 2016 coup attempt. The military doesn’t have time to dwell or act on any kind of grievance or discomfort with the government.

MY: So, if the MHP isn’t hijacking the AKP’s foreign policy, what is its role?

SO: The AKP was already favoring a more nationalist foreign policy, and the MHP just helped the AKP to realize this even further. There is research in the literature on party politics exploring the relationship between mainstream parties like the AKP and niche parties like the MHP. The MHP is a one-issue political party as it is ultranationalist and right wing.

The literature argues that in these kinds of interactions in which the platforms of niche parties appeal to the public, mainstream parties can go on to capture these positions. The AKP needed a domestic coalition to gain power, not just in terms of a coalition government but in terms of increasing its share of different social streams and constituents. Basically, the AKP found that the nationalist platform could be captured and hijacked from MHP. The AKP, for the most part, has succeeded in this.

Let’s imagine that there will be another general election, which isn’t too far from the realm of possibilities. AKP would be significantly better suited or better positioned than MHP to make the argument that it can pursue a nationalist, patriotic foreign policy considering its human capital, know-how, its handle on the bureaucracy, and its 20 years of experience. So, the AKP basically captured this policy or platform from the MHP and ran with it. The MHP is on the losing side of this strange and twisted deal.

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