Devlet Bahceli: Erdogan's enigmatic nationalist ally

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Devlet Bahceli, 70, pictured left, has been chairman of the hard right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) since 1997 (AFP Photo/KAYHAN OZER)
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Istanbul (AFP) - Once an implacable foe of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then written off as a political has-been, nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli is set to play a key role in Turkey's future under the strongman after an unexpected election success.

Bahceli, 70, a deeply enigmatic figure, has been chairman of the hard right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) since 1997 when Erdogan was still mayor of Istanbul and had yet to make a breakthrough into national politics.

But after three decades as a central if shadowy presence in Turkish politics, Bahceli is set to enjoy his greatest ever influence after forming a pact with Erdogan and then confounding expectations in Sunday's election.

Bahceli's endorsement helped Erdogan retain the presidency but his MHP did far better than expected in parliamentary polls, on 11.1 percent.

And the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won 295 seats in the 600-member house, will need the support of the MHP's 49 lawmakers to govern.

"The trap has been broken and the conspiracy thwarted," Bahceli concluded in characteristically icy style.

The partnership may not be plain sailing for Erdogan, with Bahceli likely to want his influence felt in all policy matters.

"The MHP clearly feels the upper hand in enabling Erdogan's victory, and emboldened in its political posture," said Ziya Meral, resident fellow at the British Army's Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research.

"Their divergences and interests will become more clear" as the new government gets down to business, he told AFP.

Bahceli Wednesday personally congratulated Erdogan on his victory at the presidential palace, with the two men exchanging views on the "new period" in Turkey, presidential sources said.

- 'Smear campaign' -

Many analysts and Turkish journalists had predicted electoral oblivion at the polls for Bahceli after former MHP lawmaker Meral Aksener split away to form her own anti-Erdogan nationalist party.

Taking no prisoners, as usual, Bahceli on Tuesday took out full-page advertisements in top Turkish newspapers to denounce journalists who had written his political epitaph.

In what some saw as an unashamed attack on press freedom, the advertisement even named the journalists targeted by Bahceli, including known pro-opposition personalities but also pro-government reporters.

"We will never forget what they have done, what they have written," he wrote, accusing the journalists of an "exhaustive smear campaign" against the MHP.

Baris Yarkadas of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) described the advertisement as a "heavy attack against the freedom of thought and expression".

But taking account of views of critics has never been a priority for Bahceli, who unusually for a Turkish politician has never married and has no children.

In a sign of his iron will, Bahceli on Wednesday dismissed deputy party leader Sefer Aycan who had perhaps summed up the party's situation too openly.

"We saved Erdogan. From now on, whatever we say in parliament, it will happen," Aycan said.

Bahceli had been a staunch critic of Erdogan and in the 2014 presidential elections backed a joint opposition candidate against him with the CHP. But he staged a remarkable U-turn in his stance on Erdogan, particularly after the 2016 failed coup.

- 'Brave and fearless' -

Bahceli is not expected to take a top post but play the role in which he excels -- shadowy backstage operator.

He is only the second leader of the MHP former army colonel Alparslan Turkes who founded the party in the 1960s and is still known as its Basbug (chief).

Bahceli, whose first name means "state", turned it into a more mainstream force and prevented militant wings like the notorious Grey Wolves from wreaking havoc on the streets.

Yet the MHP still regards itself as the guardian of Turkey's ethnic identity as a Turkish state, opposes compromise in the fight against Kurdish militants and backs a confrontational foreign policy.

His party's election posters showed not just Turkey but Cyprus shaded in the same red colour, giving an indication of MHP views on sovereignty of the divided Mediterranean island.

Bahceli's most controversial move in the campaign was urging an amnesty for convicts and visiting jailed organised crime boss Alaattin Cakici who he hailed as a "brave and fearless" man.

In the parliamentary poll, the MHP benefitted from taking votes from the AKP, allowing conservative Turks to express dissatisfaction with the AKP's handling of the economy while still backing Erdogan.

"The vote moves between the two show how religious conservatism in Turkey shares a similar basis with nationalism," said Meral.