Will the MHP back Erdoğan’s executive presidency?

Nationalist leader Devlet Bahçeli is trying to force through a reform unpopular with his party’s grassroots

The resignation this week of Atila Kaya, one of the MHP’s deputy leaders, has triggered a flurry of speculation over whether there is enough support in Turkey’s nationalist party to get the government’s proposed executive presidency reforms through parliament.

MPs began debating the proposals on Monday in a series of sessions that could last up to three weeks. They will then vote by secret ballot.

In Turkey, most laws – such as this month’s extension of the country’s state of emergency – require a simple majority in the chamber, or at least 276 votes.

However the proposed executive presidency system, which would abolish the position of prime minister and allow the president to directly appoint most senior judges, is a change to Turkey’s constitution and thus requires a higher threshold.

The rules are fairly straightforward: get two-thirds of MPs (367 of them) to support it, and you can change the constitution at once. But if you get a slight lower 330 votes – or 60 percent backing – you can put your proposals to a binding nationwide referendum.

Parliament’s present composition leaves the governing AK Party agonisingly short of that lower threshold:

AK’s deal with the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli is designed to get them over the 330 line.

But can they do it?

Assuming AK suffers no rebellions of its own, its parliamentary party can deliver a maximum 316 votes because the speaker cannot vote.

That means Mr Bahçeli has only to provide at least 14 votes, around a third of his own party.

It’s fair to assume that the ten members of Mr Bahçeli’s leadership team still in post after Mr Kaya’s resignation will still vote in favour of the proposal. That’s eleven more votes on the road to 330.

Grassroots opposition

But despite by notoriety leading the toughest-whipped party in the Turkish parliament, there are mutterings in Ankara that Mr Bahçeli is on the verge of suffering the biggest rebellion of his leadership.

There is deep unease in the Ülkü Ocakları, a long-standing nationalist youth network with branches across the country, at the prospect of concentrating more power in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The resignation last week of Mr Kaya – a former Ülkü Ocak leader – has been interpreted as reflecting those views.

Scattered rebellion

But so far, there are only a handful of declared rebels.

Six sitting MPs including Mr Kaya have said they will vote no both in parliament and in any future referendum. A seventh – Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – spoke out against an executive presidency when he ran against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the role in its present ceremonial state in 2014, but hasn’t yet indicated how he will vote this month.

Most of the remaining MHP MPs have been quiet – very quiet, making it very difficult to gauge how most will vote.

In fact, all we’ve really had from this silent body are the cryptic remarks of Zihni Açba, who represents the industrialised Sakarya district.

MPs in parliament will not necessarily be voting as their party leaders direct, he told the T24 news website last week, adding: “each MP will be voting with their own free will. I emphasise this point again and again. In my view, this also includes MPs from the government.”

Mr Açba was implying some AK Party MPs might rebel. He gave no hint about how he would vote.

Game of numbers

Reports of MHP hesitation have been enough to trigger a concentrated AK Party lobbying effort, with the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara dispatched to convince wavering MHP MPs to vote in favour of an executive presidency – if you believe this columnist from the nationalist Yeniçağ newspaper.

The AK Party has already lost one vote because on their number will chair proceedings, but reports suggest the speaker himself – İsmail Kahraman – is in intensive care after contracting a bug in Pakistan. It means AK will have nominate another MP as temporary speaker, losing a further vote in the process.

The odds are still that the AK Party/Bahçeli alliance will prevail but, plainly, the vote could be very, very tight.

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