An unpredictable politician, Bahceli is once again at the center of power politics. What makes him so significant?
In early August 2016, tens of thousands of people gathered by the Marmara Sea in Istanbul’s Yenikapi district to end the three-week-long nightly demonstrations against the failed coup attempt of July 15.
A day before the gathering, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged people to bring the Turkish flag instead of party banners and sigils. So the next day, the venue was draped in red with almost everyone in the crowd carrying the national flag, chanting slogans, “Martyrs are immortal; our land is indivisible.”
It was a moment of both celebration and commemoration. The coup attempt claimed 249 lives and the crowd in Yenikapi remembered the deceased in a minute-long silence, a collective acknowledgement that Turkish people would no longer be hectored into submission by the military juntas.
The military and religious leaders and leaders of Turkey’s two main opposition parties — Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — sat next to Erdogan. Since Turkey has had a violent history of successful military coups, the July 15 attempt and its subsequent failure allowed Erdogan to declare war against the coup plotters and emphasise safeguarding the civilian government.
“There we will stand together as a single nation, a single flag, a single motherland, a single state, a single spirit,” he told the crowd.
The anti-coup protests changed the country’s political atmosphere. The MHP leader Devlet Bahceli and his party supporters and sympathizers came out in support of Erdogan. On the coup night, the MHP supporters along with Turkish nationalists from Grey Wolves and people from all across the political spectrum resisted the rogue soldiers on the streets.
Bahceli soon became the first opposition leader to support Erdogan and to echo his view on the coup plotters, holding the self-exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, who is living in the US, and his shadowy network of men responsible for conspiring against the elected government.
The FETO (Fetullah Terrorist Organisation), which was designated as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish state, has reportedly infiltrated the state institutions to undermine the rank and file. When its efforts failed, its last resort was the July 15 coup attempt in 2016 to achieve its final objective, which was to take over the state completely.
“July 15 was a new invasion attempt and a new move to destroy and slaughter [our nation],” Bahceli told the crowd in Yenikapi.
For many Turks, there was something remarkable about Bahceli’s show of solidarity. He rose to the occasion, keeping the partisan politics aside and spoke the language of unity. At the Yenikapi rally, he went on cementing his call for Turkish brotherhood, invoking the 98-year-old rejected Treaty of Sevres, which called for the dismemberment of Ottoman Turkey to miniscule geographical margins. Had the treaty survived, modern day Turkey wouldn’t have existed.
“The destruction plans that were framed at [the Armistice of] Mudros [in 1918 at the end of the WWI] and were attempted to be enforced on [the Turkish nation] by [the Treaty of] Sevres have been revealed on July 15,” Bahceli said, captivating the crowd with his passionate speech.
The rise of a leader
Bahceli is defined as a tough minded and uncompromising leader by his critics. He usually speaks in an angry voice. But there are times when he's ridiculed for his "strange" and out-of-sync rhetoric backed by random mathematical equations or when he adds humour in his speeches, triggering laughter in the audience.
With time, Bahceli’s unflinching stand on several decisive moments in Turkey’s recent political history has helped him gain the reputation of being the protector of Turkish state interests.
“Bahceli has been representing over 200 years of the Turkish state’s dominant sensitivities,” said Ahmet Tarik Celenk, a former Turkish military officer and a conservative political analyst, who knows prominent political figures in both the AK Party and the MHP.
To understand Bahceli, it's crucial to understand the evolution of nationalism in Turkey from the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The Balkan Wars in 1911 weakened the Empire, eroding its borders in Europe, which created a perception in the Ottoman establishment that they cannot hold the Balkans anymore and that they need to reinvent their nation in and around the Anatolian heartland.
The Balkan disaster, according to Cezmi Bayram, one of the most prominent Turkish nationalist opinion leaders, was a big trauma for the Ottoman Empire and its people.
"Most people are still not so aware of its significance, but it was the most soul-shattering event in our national conscious at the time,” he told TRT World.
Soon after the end of the Balkan Wars, the Turkish nationalists established Turk Ocagi, meaning Turkish Hearths, with an aim to develop a new Turkish identity with Anatolia as its main bastion. Bayram is the president of Turk Ocagi, one of the oldest Turkish nationalist institutions.
In the following decades until now, the Turkish nationalists inherited the legacy of Turk Ocagi, and Bahceli is one of its champions.
This unconditional love for an exclusive Turkish homeland brought politicians like Bahceli in close proximity with Turkey’s political establishment, which has laid out the country’s political agenda for many decades. “The most notable man of the Turkish establishment,” said Osman Bostan, another Turkish political analyst.
The idea of state and nationhood are two indispensable concepts in modern state crafts. And in Turkey, both concepts are considered to be sacred.
For many experts, Bahceli is one of the potent political instruments who upholds the interests of the Turkish state.
“Bahceli is now forming the public policy language [in the country]. He is able to express himself through the public policy language [of the establishment] more than anybody else,” Bostan said.
Celenk and Bostan are on the same page when it comes to examining Bahceli’s role in Turkey's current state of affairs, but as Celenk compares Bahceli with Erdogan, he views the two leaders differently. “When we say Devlet Bahceli [Devlet means state in Turkish], we mean the state; when we say Recep Tayyip Erdogan, we mean the people,” Celenk told TRT World.
“Bahceli says he’s defending the sensitivities of the state. Erdogan says he represents the nation, that he is the people.”
In Celenk’s observation, the Erdogan-Bahceli alliance emerged after the July 15 failed coup, with both leaders now publicly calling the alliance Cumhur Ittifaki (People’s Alliance), seen as a cooperation of the state and the nation.
“Bahceli’s sensitivities have been the protection of the indivisible primary aspects of the state despite the trend in the last 300 years of dissolution starting with Ottoman politics,” Celenk emphasised.
Bahceli recently displayed his political finesse by making repeated calls for early election. At first, the poll talk sounded out of place since Turkey had had a referendum a year ago to change its prime ministerial democracy into the presidential one. And the next parliamentary and presidential elections were widely predicted to be held in late-2019.
But in mid May, Erdogan surprised political pundits as he called for early elections, citing Bahceli’s insistence to have one.
This was not the first time Bahceli stirred the country’s politics. He has a history of making bold moves, even though some people think his political interventions are random with no logic whatsoever.
At a closer look, his decisions carry weight.
In 2000, when the parliamentarians voted for a bill to ban the death penalty in Turkey’s legal system, Bahceli chose to stay neutral, even though he had been a supporter of this extreme punishment. His neutrality proved decisive in getting the law retracted.
Two years later, Bahceli suddenly pulled out from the government, forcing early elections, which changed the whole political balance in Turkey, opening up the space for conservative politics. As a result, the Erdogan-led AK Party became invincible. It governed the country for more than a decade and continues to be in power.
Then in 2007, Bahceli again played an audacious political card.
The AK Party’s presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, came under criticism from the secularist establishment, including the military, who tried to block his election because his wife wore a headscarf in public, a practice which was banned in Turkey until the AK Party came into power.
But Bahceli, who then had a formidable parliamentary group, prevented the secularist plot in parliament by supporting the AK Party. In the end, Gul became the president.
Born in 1948 in Bahce, a district in Turkey’s southern Osmaniye province, Bahceli grew up in a leftist family. His father was an ardent supporter of the Republican People’s Party or CHP. His family’s origins trace back to a prominent Turkmen tribe, the Fettahli, which had migrated to Ottoman Turkey from Kufe, Iraq. Before Kufe, the tribe was located in Central Asia, the ancestral homeland of the Turkic peoples.
According to Osmaniye-based local historian Cezmi Yurtsever, Bahceli’s great-grandfather Agca Bey was executed by the Ottoman Empire’s Adana province governor in 1817. Mehmet Bey, Agca Bey’s son, was also put to death by the Ottoman authorities in 1856. Yurtsever discovered the Agca family tomb in Bahce in 1998.
“When I first visited the tomb’s location, it was in a miserable state,” Yurtsever recalled. There was an inscription on the tomb which one of the Ottoman language experts read in the 1970s. It said “[Our metaphorical] father martyred my son because of a suspicion.” The inscription was written by Irep Hatun, Agca Bey’s mother. Ordinary Turks usually call their state devlet baba [the paternal state].
“At the very end, she was not accusing the sultan. She was not accusing the state. But obviously she had a lot of pains,” Yurtsever told TRT World.
Yurtsever’s discovery made headlines in Turkish newspapers in 2007. Bahceli called Yurtsever to confirm that “the incident is real.”
“We can no longer do anything about that. But I thank you for the work you have done. Please do continue,” he told Yurtsever.
Coming from a fairly affluent background, Bahceli moved to Ankara in 1970 to study at Ankara University’s economic department. Contrary to his father’s political beliefs, he joined the Turkish nationalist youth organisation, the Gray Wolves, with close links to the MHP.
He owned a car, a rare luxury for a student of that era. He was quick to rise through the social hierarchy of Ankara’s nationalist circles.
After graduating from the university, he had a brief stint in academics as an assistant professor at the Gazi University in 1972. He and his colleagues founded two unions — the University Assistants Associations and the Idealist (Ulkucu in Turkish) Economist Association.
His political activism and social skills brought him closer to Alparslan Turkes, the legendary leader of the nationalist movement. In 1987, Turkes invited him to join the cadres of the MHP.
“He was both an academic and a silent figure. He did not argue with the leadership, which made him a suitable candidate for some of the important party posts,” said Cezmi Bayram, one of the most prominent Turkish nationalist opinion leaders.
By the time Turkes’s health began to fail, Bahceli was seen as his right-hand man, who steered the MHP along with his ailing leader’s son Tugrul Turkes.
Turkes died in 1997.
“At the time, his name was not mentioned as a powerful candidate inside the party. The MHP power circles had supported him because he was a hardworking impartial figure who had no animosity with anybody,” said Avni Ozgurel, a nationalist Turkish publisher and columnist, who worked closely with Turkes. “Everybody has a favourable view about him inside the party.”
Both Bayram and Ozgurel told TRT World that the MHP establishment rallied behind him, thinking they were electing a temporary leader whom they could easily control.
But it was Bahceli’s formidable organisational skills that allowed him to establish a firm grip over the party’s local constituents.
“He has the political experience to set up his own cadre [in the MHP’s national and local offices],” Ozgurel said. In addition to that, his connections inside Turkey’s powerful institutions strengthened his grip over the party.
The MHP’s youth wing, the Gray Wolves, violently clashed with the leftist groups in the run-up to the notorious 1980 military coup. One of Bahceli’s key organisational milestones is keeping the members of the Gray Wolves off the streets.
Two decades later, Bahceli continued to lead the party as an unopposed leader.
Though his colleague, Meral Aksener, defected from the MHP and formed a new front named the Good Party, experts argue that Aksener can’t wield as much influence over the country’s nationalist constituencies as Bahceli does.
The countdown to the June 24 election has begun, and all eyes are on the Erdogan-Bahceli alliance, with political experts wondering whether it will help the AK Party form the new government.
The MHP cadres have been campaigning on the idea of securing Turkey’s national interests, citing the “threat” of external powers.
“External powers have political designs against the Turkish state,” said Musa Serdar Celebi, one of the most prominent Turkish nationalists, who is the founding president of the Turkish-Islamic Union in Europe. “They want to finish the job before 2020.”
In the coming days, Bahceli’s nearly indecipherable moves are likely to shape the course of Turkey’s power politics. It remains to be seen how he plays his cards.