Signs of Rift Between Nationalist Leader, Erdogan Days Before Vote

Only 3 days before Turkey’s momentous referendum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crucial backer Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the nationalist opposition, showed signs of an unexpected rift with the ruling party over debates about a potential transition to a federal system after the vote.

The hard-won alliance of convenience to pass the constitutional amendment vastly expanding Mr. Erdogan’s powers appears to be fraying after Mr. Bahceli’s recent unsettling remarks.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader dropped a bombshell on Thursday by questioning federal system proposals laid out by Mr. Erdogan’s counselors to woo Kurdish voters. What could jolt the president more was the MHP chairman’s veiled threat of withdrawing support of nationalists, an unpalatable risk that could sink Mr. Erdogan’s long-sought bid.

Mr. Bahceli made little secret of his resentment and long-held, unflinching objection to the introduction of a system that could pave the way for regional autonomies, an issue anathema to the nationalist core of Turkey. They have always defended a strong, centralized unitary state with limited room for local administrations.

“Now, an advisor comes up and talks about state system [federal system for provinces]. Either these [advisors] sabotage AKP’s goal, or they are tasked with [secret] bargaining?” he said in a televised interview on Thursday night. “Time will show that.”

“What would be the decision of nationalists in the remaining two days if the president does not show any reaction to chief presidential advisor hinting introduction of ‘state system?” said Mr. Bahceli, sounding stark warnings.

Given high stakes of a debacle in the historic vote that would kill materialization of his life-long ambition for an executive presidency, Mr. Erdogan cannot afford to lose this Sunday.

Though recently enjoyed a cordial rapport after a myth-busting political re-alignment, Mr. Bahceli and President Erdogan are not in a complete mind meld.

Long-running differences in style and substance and political conviction make a complete convergence of their political agendas, goals untenable and implausible.

What molded them together now would separate them in a mutually destructive divorce. The alignment of Justice and Development Party (AKP) and nationalist MHP took hold regarding how to deal with the Kurdish conflict.

Nationalists often excoriated President Erdogan and his government for “illusory path of the peace process,” rather than delivering a crushing defeat to the Kurdish insurgents, favoring the military solution to a political settlement.

And Mr. Erdogan eventually embraced militarist creed of rabble-rousing right and nationalist camp, abandoning his efforts to reach a peaceful settlement with Turkey’s Kurds after June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections. That vote cost Mr. Erdogan’s party its parliamentary majority first time in 13 years after Kurdish political party’s upset of the balance with entering to Parliament.

The proposed system for provinces is regarded as the formation of possible regional autonomy in the eyes of nationalist Turks. They are against relinquishing administrative powers to local authorities on the ground that it would fuel separatist sentiment in Turkey’s southeast.

The “state system,” or federal structure, was among the policy options during a failed peace process to convince Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a solution in return for Ankara’s admission of regional autonomy for Kurds. It supposed to deliver Mr. Erdogan his presidential bid while recognizing Kurds’ decades-long drive for autonomy for a final settlement of the conflict that had killed 40,000 people in four decades. The intractable conflict has ravaged cities and towns in the latest phase of the violence since 2015.

To reach his political goals, the cold logic of politics dictates Mr. Erdogan either to choose nationalist Turks, who are avowedly against regional autonomy or state system, or Kurds.

Winning both camps at the same time is not plausible.

“I did not forward my complaint to the president. There would be no such an advisor. I would fire if I had such an advisor,” nationalist firebrand Mr. Bahceli said in indignation last night.

A panicked Mr. Erdogan was quick to respond to MHP leader’s veiled threat. He said there is no such a plan to change the system, urging the MHP leader only to pay attention to the president’s remarks, not to his advisors’.

Latest polls suggest that the referendum results are too close to call, keeping Mr. Erdogan’s nerves on edge while he is zealously laboring to promote Yes vote. He counts on nationalist votes, even while the nationalist MHP suffers an intra-party split over support for Mr. Erdogan.

Renegade figures such as Meral Aksener and other opponents of Mr. Bahceli campaign for No vote, warning of a regime change that would end a nearly century-old republican system.

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