Devlet means “state”: Decoding Erdoğan’s alliance partner’s influence

I believe that Devlet Bahçeli is the most talented tactician in living Turkish politics; he can achieve the most results with the least power, knows when and where he will be needed, and intervenes at the most opportune time. Is he more influencial in state affairs than we think he is?

Devlet means state in Turkish and “Devlet (State) will come to the head of the state!” was one of the most striking slogans of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) before Devlet Bahçeli moved from the opposition ranks to the AKP government ranks via the People’s Alliance, supporting President Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s no longer used, but Devlet Bahçeli is truly a partner in governing the state with Erdoğan, without any responsibility.

I believe that Devlet Bahçeli is the most talented tactician in living Turkish politics; he can achieve the most results with the least power, knows when and where he will be needed, and intervenes at the most opportune time. Thus, he could both be a coalition partner in Bülent Ecevit’s DSP government in 1999 and can also get Tayyip Erdoğan to do what he wants without having to take responsibility.

The Devlet Bahçeli effect

Especially after the local elections on March 31, 2024, Bahçeli’s behind-the-scenes influence in state governance seems to have increased. At the consultation meetings of the AKP in Ankara, Kızılcahamam on June 1-2, it was discussed that the MHP benefited more from the People’s Alliance, as reflected in political backstage. This complaint has actually existed since the local election defeat in 2019.

Erdoğan postponed the reckoning of the March 31 defeat to the Congress expected to be held in October. But this postponement negatively affects not only the AKP ranks but also the bureaucratic functioning, including ministers. Erdoğan’s seeing a “bureaucratic oligarchy” threat in the senior bureaucracy, which he now entirely appoints himself, even shows the extent of his concern. No one wants to take risks and get into trouble.

Two moves by Bahçeli were influential in changing the course of Erdoğan’s signals for a more moderate state governance in the first few weeks after the election. The first was a video Bahçeli posted on his social media account with him walking alone, after which Erdoğan made his first visit to Bahçeli after the elections on April 29. The second was Erdoğan’s visit to Beştepe on May 10, just after his meeting with CHP leader Özgür Özel, talking about “political softening”.

Too many coincidences in a row

Özel also met with Bahçeli as part of what he called the “normalization” process. However, it cannot be said that Bahçeli was pleased with Erdoğan’s statement that he expected support from the CHP leader for a constitutional change. Bahçeli’s red line for the sustainability of the MHP’s influence in state functioning is the continuation of the Presidential system with the 50 percent +1 condition; he knows that otherwise, he will lose the ability to make and obtain demands from Erdoğan in return for his political support.

Another turning point could be said to be Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya’s visit to Devlet Bahçeli in the Parliament on May 28. Bahçeli has always wanted the closure of the HDP and DEM parties, and the arrest and banning of their mayors and deputies.

When Erdoğan said on June 1, “We cannot abandon our red lines for softening,” reminding the MHP’s lines, and on June 3, the DEM Party-affiliated Hakkâri Mayor Mehmet Sıddık Akış was sentenced to prison on June 5. Erdoğan said this was the “first step” and that “more will follow,” it cannot be a coincidence.

Özel’s moves, İmamoğlu and Devlet Bahçeli

In response, Özel made sequential moves. He nominated Ekrem İmamoğlu, whom Erdoğan fears as a potential presidential candidate, for the presidency of the Turkish Municipalities Association. İmamoğlu, who was elected by a large margin, included Ahmet Türk, the Mayor of Mardin from DEM (a prominent name in Kurdish politics), and Ayşe Serra Bucak, the Mayor of Diyarbakır, in his administration list. It can be said that including Rasim Arı, the Mayor of Nevşehir from the İYİ Party, did not please Bahçeli, and including Mehmet Kasım Gülpınar, the Mayor of Şanlıurfa from the New Welfare Party, did not please Erdoğan. Equally important is that İmamoğlu, as the president of the TBB, will now be able to appear everywhere in Türkiye without facing the criticism of “What are you doing there?”

Özel’s statement that “if normalization does not happen, no one can prevent early elections” brings discussion of Erdoğan’s candidacy again, but even the mention of early elections during the most challenging period of an economic crisis is enough to keep not only Erdoğan but also AKP deputies, who will worry about re-election, and senior bureaucrats, who fear losing their positions, awake at night.

Is Akşener back in the game?

Özel continues the line of carrying the game with two strikers like İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, assigning himself the role of playmaker. Erdoğan, on the other hand, has no second man beside him; therefore, he has to rely on Bahçeli in state functioning.

Just at this moment, Erdoğan made his move towards İYİ Party’s former leader Meral Akşener.

Erdoğan and Akşener met at the funeral of Türkiye’s former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller’s husband Özer Çiller in Istanbul on June 3, and Akşener went to Beştepe on June 5. There were comments on whether she would change her politics along with her hair color. The claims even went as far as suggesting that Akşener wanted the Paris Embassy for her son Fatih, which requires confirmation.

Akşener, who served as the Interior Minister from the DYP quota during the Refah-Yol coalition period in 1990s, which also witnessed the February 28 process, joined the MHP afterwards, seeing it more fitting to her nationalist roots, instead of accepting the offer from Erdoğan during the establishment of the AKP. While in the MHP, she served as the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament. However, her path diverged from Bahçeli’s when Bahçeli formed an alliance with Erdoğan, and Akşener became the founding leader of the opposition’s İYİ Party.

We know the rest. After the 2023 election defeat, she took her party to the congress and did not run for re-election.

Will Erdoğan go to CHP?

What we really want to know is how these developments will reflect on the currently tense and uncertain politics of Ankara.

The key development here is whether President Erdoğan, as he said, will visit the CHP Headquarters and meet with Özel as a reciprocal visit. Özel said it will happen on June 11, but who knows.

Erdoğan did not go to the meeting with US President Joe Biden, which he had been waiting for years, because the conditions were not suitable. He might just as well postpone the meeting with Özel.

But if Erdoğan goes to the CHP Headquarters next week and meets with Özel, even if the meeting is tense, it means the dialogue continues.

If he doesn’t go, the person who probably won’t care at all will be Devlet Bahçeli.

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Murat Yetkin


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