Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary group’s deputy chair Mahir Ünal announced his resignation from his position in the party on October 31, after his comments against early republican reforms stirred debate. In fact, Ünal’s seat began to shake when AKP’s “People’s Alliance” partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli made a harsher comment against him than the opposition party representatives. It was because Ünal criticized early republican reforms undertaken under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and claimed that transition from Arabic letters to Latin alphabet ended Turkish and made it impossible for a language of thought. This was scoring his own goal. Bahçeli reacted Ünal strongly, saying that his comments were “an unfortunate, unspeakable, and baseless mistake.”
It was AKP Spokesperson Ömer Çelik who eventually undertook the responsibility to save the day. He said, quoting Atatürk, that “the republic and democracy will forever stand alive,” implying that Mahir Ünal’s position would not be supported.
This angered President and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even further.
It is not just Bahçeli
Erdogan’s anger wasn’t because he didn’t agree with what Ünal said; he had already said many times that the criticizes the change from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin alphabet.
One of the reasons for his anger was the timing of Ünal’s out-of-the-ordinary display of his intellectual accumulation in this way. Preparations for an important public relations campaign by the AKP were overshadowed.
On October 28, Erdoğan was to announce projects to embrace all segments of the society -who knows how many times- with a debut he called the “Century of Türkiye”, and he would make a kind of early victory speech. The next day, the first TOGG, Türkiye’s first indigenous electric vehicle, which was produced with the slogan “the first domestic and national automobile,” was to be removed from the factory with a celebration event. Erdogan’s reaction was visible in the political backdrop.
However, there was Bahçeli’s reaction there. It was known that Bahçeli had a share in the Minister of Justice, Abdülhamid Gül, who had previously clashed with Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu, being “excused” in January. Likewise, his share in Bülent Arınç, one of the “founding fathers” of the AKP, being “excused” from the Presidency High Advisory Board. When Soylu resigned in 2020, Bahçeli also said “he should stay” and kept him.
Ünal’s words put Erdoğan in a difficult situation against Bahçeli once again.
Chairs in the parliament
Moreover, it was Bahçeli who helped the criminal organisation leader Alaattin Çakıcı benefit from the prison releases due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although his situation was not applicable for the pardon.
If we go back a bit, when the AKP lost its majority in the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye in the 7 June 2015 elections and the HDP entered Parliament, it was Bahçeli who demanded early elections that night and ensured that Erdoğan regained the parliamentary majority on repeated November 1, 2015 election.
In the July 15, 2016 attempt, the majority of the crowd that greeted Erdoğan at Istanbul Atatürk Airport on the morning of July 16 was not from the AKP but from the MHP. With the support of Bahçeli, Erdoğan was able to have the Constitution of the Presidential Government System accepted in 2017, and at the MHP leader’s request, he was able to go to the 2018 elections and achieve the transition to the “Turkish Type Presidential System,” as Bahçeli’s words, a year after.
Since 2002, when Bahçeli says elections, elections are held, when he says referendum, a referendum is held. When Bahçeli wants somebody out of prison, that person gets out of jail; whoever he wants to stay in the cabinet stays, and whoever he wants to go, goes.
Was Ünal aware of his being “excused”?
Not taking Bahçeli’s reaction into account over Mahir Ünal’s departure from the AKP Parliamentart Deputy Group Chair post would be political shortsightedness.
So much so that, on October 30, Ünal tried to fix the situation with words praising Atatürk on his Twitter account, emphasising that he did not find it appropriate to make a statement prior to the “Century of Türkiye” and TOGG events. However, after the Central Executive Board meeting chaired by Erdoğan on October 31, he published a message that he “wanted to be excused from duty,” a wish that was accepted by Erdoğan.
Özlem Zengin, the AKP Central Board member who succeeded Mahir Ünal, was in this position before. In one of her speeches, she said that the right of women to vote and to be elected in Türkiye was granted by Erdoğan. Ünal was the AKP’s Deputy Chair of the Party at that time, and he was blamed for the failure of the social media campaign of “green ticks” launched with the motto “National Accounts are Here”. With the 7th Congress on March 24, 2021, Erdoğan had brought Zengin to the AKP administration and sent Ünal to the Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Group post, which he had previously held.
Bahçeli’s specific gravity over the AKP
We have to admit that Bahçeli is the most successful tactician in Turkish politics today.
Using his fluctuating vote rate of around 10 percent as leverage, he has a say in almost all strategic issues concerning the AKP government’s policies and personnel when necessary.
He achieved this by the support he gave to Erdogan in his most difficult times and by making him accept the “50 + 1 percent vote” system in the presidential election and by binding the President to MHP and himself. Bahçeli has an indisputable specific gravity over the AKP government.
7 months before the elections, the new rabbits that will come out of Bahçeli’s hat seem to keep Erdoğan on his toes as much as, if not more, than the opposition leaders.