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Erdogan's plans for power hinge on Turkish nationalist feud

Members of Turkey's ultra-nationalist party have been blocked from holding a congress to oust the party's leader. Events are being closely watched as they could impact President Erdogan's drive to increase his power.

Fahne der Partei MHP in der Türkei

A man waves a MHP flag

Dissident members of Turkey's main ultra-nationalist party were blocked by police on Sunday from holding a party congress in their bid to oust a longtime leader.

The internal party feud within the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) has major implications as to whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to tighten his

already strong grip on power by changing Turkey from a parliamentary to presidential system.

Several thousand MHP supporters marched towards the Ankara hotel where the congress was to be held, only to be blocked by riot police and barricades. They were seeking to make a change to party rules to be able to replace Devlet Bahceli, who has led the party for the past 19-years.

Türkei MHP Vorsitzender Devlet Bahceli

Devlet Bahceli makes the ultra-nationalist hand signal.

The orders to block the congress came from the Ankara governor, who is appointed by the government.

The showdown came after Turkish courts on Friday gave conflicting rulings on whether MHP was allowed to hold a party congress. A final appeals court decision is expected later this month.

The four main contenders for the party leadership, including frontrunner Meral Aksener, accused Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) of interfering through the judiciary and police to block a leadership change. With an estimated 75 percent of party delegates behind a leadership change, some MHP members vowed to continue on with the congress despite the legal uncertainty.

"The executive branch staged a coup against the judiciary branch. The constitution and law are being suspended. A change in the MHP became the AKP government's nightmare," the four main contenders for the party leadership said in a joint statement.

Erdogan and the AKP have gradually

chipped away at the independence of the judiciary,

fueling claims he may be trying to dictate what other parties can do. It comes amid rising concern over authoritarianism under Erdogan.

The AKP is just short of the necessary votes in parliament needed to pass a constitutional change and send it to a referendum. It is a few dozen seats away from the two-thirds majority needed in the 550-seat parliament to change the constitution without a referendum.

While MHP dissidents are against granting Erdogan sweeping presidential powers, current party leader Bahceli is more open to the idea.

There have been growing calls for Bahceli to step down after 19 years at the helm of the MHP.

The MHP suffered a devastating blow in November elections, losing nearly half its seats and barely getting over the country's 10 percent threshold to enter parliament. It has 40 seats in parliament compared to 80 before the November elections.

The MHP and AKP share a Turkish nationalist and religious constituency that overlaps geographically in the Black Sea and central Anatolia.

Some suspect the AKP will try to coax the MHP to back a presidential system at a time the nationalists are more concerned about continuing the fight against Kurdish militants. The other two parties in parliament oppose the presidential system.

Alternatively, if elections were called while Bahceli was still the head of the MHP, it is questionable whether the party would pass the 10 percent threshold. Not passing the threshold means the MHP's seats would go to the AKP.

Some polls show the MHP could double its support under a figure like Aksener, a former interior minister. Therefore, there is an incentive for the AKP to want Bahceli to remain in power.

Founded in 1969, the MHP has a dark and violent history against leftists and Kurds, with some likening its Grey Wolves armed wing to a fascist movement.

Bahceli became the second leader of the movement in 1997 in an effort to turn it into a mainstream party.

The party is against any concessions to Kurds and supports a hard military line against Kurdish militants.

cw/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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