The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Turkey's third largest political party, is heading for an unscheduled leadership contest. An increasingly strong intra-party opposition, coupled with MHP Deputy Chairman Ümit Özdağ's resignation and the party leadership's controversial decision to shut down local chapters in intra-party opposition strongholds, indicates that the battle is no longer avoidable.It remains unclear why MHP Chairman Devlet Bahçeli, a moderate who has been leading the MHP for almost 20 years, desperately wants to avoid a confrontation. Although many party members found his performance after the June 2015 election disappointing, it is important to keep in mind that Bahçeli single-handedly kept pro-MHP youth, who in the past would engage in violent clashes with opponents, off the streets. Having paid a heavy price for taking to the streets during the stormy 1970s, many MHP veterans continue to appreciate his efforts.
Although the MHP remains a relatively weak player in the political arena, the entire country has started paying attention to the party because many observers suspect some kind of foul play in the making.
Since May 2013, Turkey has had a series of controversial events, including the Gezi Park protests, the Gülen Movement's failed attempt to overthrow the government, an unlawful interception of government trucks allegedly delivering arms to moderate rebels and PKK violence during the siege of Kobani. Currently, the country faces a challenge in northern Syria with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People's Protection Units (YPG).
Many people believe blood needs to be spilled in order to destabilize Turkey. What better way to incite violence than to sideline the moderate leader of a party with a history of violence?
Although most international observers were not paying attention to Turkey at the time, attacks were often perpetrated against coffee houses in Istanbul in the 1970s. In recent months, PKK militants have been launching similar assault as if to challenge the Turkish nationalists to a battle. If and when the MHP base responds, it will be difficult to stop the violence.
Although the risks are real, the MHP leadership should focus on providing a vision for their supporters instead of cracking down on intra-opposition strongholds. The fact that rebels like Meral Akşener, Sinan Oğan, Koray Aydın and Ümit Özdağ have kept silent about a potential return to street violence raises questions about their credibility.
Özdağ's shocking resignation, in particular, raised eyebrows as many observers claimed he had seen that the leadership race was unavoidable. Others maintained that Bahçeli might have fielded one of his lieutenants to undermine the rebellion. Either way, the future looks dim for Turkey's third largest political party.
With Özdağ or Oğan at the helm, the MHP is likely to further isolate and potentially refocus its attention on extra-parliamentary opposition. Meanwhile, Akşener, who her supporters claim would move the MHP to the center and challenge the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), remains unable to show whether she would play the moderate or strike a deal with the Gülen Movement.
According to a senior MHP official, Akşener maintains close ties with Gülenists. "Turkish nationalists must understand that she refuses to criticize the Gülen Movement, which openly works against Turkey's national interests," he claimed. "If she [works with them] out of pragmatism, Gülenists will control the MHP."
The leadership contest within the MHP deserves some attention. Although Bahçeli wants to avoid a confrontation with the intra-party opposition, the current power struggle will determine whether or not the movement will re-embrace its radical roots.