MHP: Nationalist wild card in Turkey's election race

Ankara (AFP) - "Turkey is in deep trouble. Its future is on a knife-edge," Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) roars at a campaign rally ahead of Sunday's election.

"When Turkish nationalists come to power, the bombers, assassins and assailants will look for a place to hide. We are the fearless guardians of Turkey."

Mixing full-blooded nationalist rhetoric with virulent attacks on the 13-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the MHP has emerged as a player that cannot be ignored.

It is expected to reap between 14 and 16 percent of the vote, a performance that could be crucial in determining the future government.

The election is the second in five months, called after the AKP dramatically lost its parliamentary majority in June and then failed to form a coalition.

Despite the fiery campaign speeches, the MHP could be open to joining an AKP government in the event of another hung parliament.

But Bahceli, MHP leader for almost two decades, is expected to drive a hard bargain.

The MHP, established in 1969 by Alparslan Turkes, was an ultra-radical formation in the 1970s and 80s, with its Grey Wolves militant unit operating death squads that killed numerous left-wing activists and students.

Bahceli took control of the MHP in 1997, seeking to turn it into a more mainstream movement that could achieve success at the ballot box.

But the party has not lost its radicalism, playing on fears that the modern state founded by Ataturk out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire is in existential danger.

- 'Tooth for a tooth' -

At a weekend rally in Ankara drawing a crowd of up to 20,000, people shouted as they made the two-fingered wolf gesture: "A tooth for a tooth, blood for blood, revenge, revenge!"

Bahceli bellowed back: "No need for revenge. Just sit back and watch the people who have hurt, we, the Turks eventually fall."

He said Turkey's "heritage and divinity" was being destroyed because of the AKP. "Walls of security have been destroyed and our national identity and future have been taken hostage."

A key MHP policy is opposition to the peace process with Kurdish rebels, which the nationalists see as a threat to the fabric of the Turkish nation created by Ataturk.

The MHP is also demanding a reopening of the corruption investigation into President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cronies -- and for the strongman to stay well out of politics.

Bahceli accuses the government of showing weakness over the upsurge in Kurdish violence that has seen about 150 members of the security forces killed in the past few months.

"I can see from your eyes... that the MHP is here, to embrace our martyrs, to foil their dirty plans one by one, but most importantly to declare that we haven't collapsed, we've been standing," he told the Ankara crowds.

Ilte Turan, professor of politics at Istanbul Bilgi University, told AFP the MHP had successfully broken out of its 1970s image of ultra-nationalism.

"Bahceli has pulled the youth off the streets, turning the party into a more peaceful one, free of guns."

But nonetheless, he said "the majority of the MHP voters are ultra-nationalist" with their natural enemies leftists and minorities such as the Kurds.

- 'Not a naysayer party' -

The MHP draws its support mainly from conservative populations, often in smaller towns, who believe their "Turkishness" is under threat and are angry at perceived widespread corruption under the AKP.

"I've been voting for the MHP since 1973 and my party has never betrayed me. Even if I was the only person left in the world to vote for MHP, I would vote for them," retired teacher Sezgin Turan, 60, said at the Ankara rally.

"We are not against any minorities. There is a difference between hating foreigners and defending your own nation."

Mehmet Gursel, 23-year-old Turkish literature student at Ankara university, proudly wore his MHP badge bearing three crescent moons.

"I vote for MHP because I'm a Turk and believe that everything in Turkey should first serve the Turks and then others. MHP is the only party that doesn't compromise on Turkishness and want to 'sell' this country to foreigners."

Bahceli rejected coalition proposals from the AKP after the June 7 election, prompting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to quip that the only thing he agreed to was a cup of tea.

But at the Ankara rally Bahceli insisted he was willing to join a coalition with all political forces in Turkey, except the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

"The MHP is not a naysayer party."

Turan said while there could be greater pressure on the MHP to form a coalition this time, Bahceli's demands would make it an unlikely partner.

The MHP and AKP also compete over the same nationalist conservative voters, which could make any coalition between the two unstable.

"One will claim that the other partner is not good enough, while trying to prove to their own voters that they are working harder," Turan said.