Joining the Grey Wolves: Erdogan's pact with the ultra-nationalists

The president continues with the radical polarisation of Turkish politics and society, a strategy that won him victory in the last elections
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PHOTO/AFP  -   In this Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015 file photo, supporters of Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), make the sign of a "Grey Wolf", the symbol of Turkish nationalism

Founded in 1968 by Colonel Alparslan Türkes, 'Grey Wolves' is at the origin of the paramilitary branch of the National Movement Party (MHP), the Turkish ultra-nationalist party and ally of President Tayyip Erdogan. The current status of this far-right group in Turkey is epitomised by Alaattin Cakici, a notorious Turkish mafia boss. Cakici has in the past focused his ire on leftists, Kurds and Alawites, and is believed to be responsible for at least 41 political assassinations. He has also spent decades terrorising his rivals and those with different political views within the country. In 2004, a court sentenced him to 19 years in prison, in part for ordering the murder of his ex-wife in front of their son. 

Many breathed a sigh of relief when he was locked up, ensuring that one of the most dangerous enemies of Turkish democracy was removed from public life for a long period. Now, however, Cakici is back. Last April he was released from Sincan high-security prison as part of an amnesty related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he has become an increasingly important voice in Turkish politics.

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AFP/OZAN KOSE - People shout slogans and make nationalist "grey wolves" banners during the funeral of Turkish soldier Fehmi Barcin, killed the previous day in an attack in Kayseri in Istanbul, Turkey

Shortly after his release, Cakici visited his ally Devlet Bahceli, head of the far-right MHP party and Erdogan's coalition partner. Shortly afterwards, in November, he made death threats against opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. "Watch your step," he wrote on Twitter. And when thousands of students took to the streets of Istanbul earlier this year to protest the appointment of an Erdogan confidant as rector of the renowned Bosphorus University, he branded the protesters terrorists. 

Cakici's new public profile is the expression of a fundamental power shift in Turkey. For many years, Erdogan pursued an agenda centred on religion. But after the 2016 coup attempt involving followers of Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, he has turned to ultra-nationalists. Since the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections, it has ruled in coalition with Bahceli's secular, far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

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PHOTO/AP - Sur cette photo d'archive du 11 avril 2008, des bureaux de la police paramilitaire escortent Alaattin Cakici avant un procès à Istanbul

The MHP is the political arm of the Grey Wolves. It may only attract around 7 percent support in political polls, but its importance has increased massively in recent months, as has the influence of Grey Wolves veterans such as Cakici. Whether it is a natural gas dispute with Greece, the fight against terrorism or Ankara's approach to minorities, government policy is increasingly influenced by the MHP.

The extent of the right-wing extremists' influence could be seen in mid-March, when the chief prosecutor, at Bahceli's behest, submitted a request to the country's High Court to ban Turkey's second largest opposition party, the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Erdogan has been consistent in his efforts to avoid party bans. His own party, the conservative Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP), came close to being banned in 2008. In the end, however, he succumbed to BahCeli's pressure, say observers in Ankara. "Bahceli has taken the most powerful man in Turkey hostage," says Turkish journalist Can Dündar. "Erdogan has the drum, but Bahceli has the beat," he adds. 

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PHOTO/REUTERS - Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)

Erdogan apparently cannot afford to offend the MHP. The Turkish economy is mired in crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse. Meanwhile, Erdogan's AKP has fallen in the polls to just 30 per cent. His re-election to the presidency depends entirely on the support of right-wing extremists. Erdogan tolerates right-wing extremists. While tens of thousands of opposition activists have been arrested in Turkey in recent years, attacks on parliamentarians and journalists have gone unpunished. Mafia boss Alaattin Cakici has also been allowed to spread his message of hate without consequences.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023. However, experts agree that Erdogan and Bahceli could call early elections this autumn to avoid the possibility of further economic deterioration. Just three days after prosecutors filed their request to ban the HDP, Erdogan fired the head of Turkey's central bank and decreed his country's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which aims to prevent violence against women. Indeed, it seems that Erdogan is once again pursuing the same strategy that won him victory in the last elections: the radical polarisation of Turkish society.