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Turkey vote: Who are Erdogan's allies?

April 11, 2023

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey are scheduled for May 14, and polls point to a close race. These are the parties that support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's election alliance.

 Recep Tayyip Erdogan and MHP head Devlet Bahceli, two men in a room shake hands, flower bouquet in the foreground, flags behind them.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) has made MHP head Devlet Bahceli one of his close alliesImage: DHA

Two major earthquakes rocked Turkey on February 6, killing more than 50,000 people and injuring thousands more. Hundreds are still considered to be missing, while millions of earthquake victims found temporary shelter with relatives and friends in other cities.

The deadly earthquake and its aftermath will serve as the backdrop to Turkey's parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14, which have the potential to upend Turkey's political landscape. For the first time since taking office more than 20 years ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not the favorite in the presidential race.

During his two decades in office, first as prime minister then as president, Erdogan has shaped the country like no other politician before him. He has changed legislation to reshape the Turkish state in his image. Since introducing the presidential system he has ruled the country as a de facto autocrat, relegating parliament to insignificance.

Two months after the earthquake and one month before the vote, polls point to a close race between the government camp and the leading opposition alliance. Some institutes have predicted a defeat for Erdogan's electoral alliance. In the race for the presidency, Erdogan is trailing his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who leads the largest opposition alliance.

 Kemal Kilicdaroglu, man stands at a lectern holding a piece of paper, men and women stand behind him.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu is Erdogan's main challenger for the presidencyImage: Ercin Erturk/AA/picture alliance

Erdogan, however, remains an excellent tactician: he hasn't lost an election since 2002 and survived mass protests, including the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations and an attempted coup in 2016.

Even now, he knows how to look out for himself politically. The 69-year-old recently secured the support of small Islamist splinter parties for his electoral alliance, the People's Alliance — and they could tip the scales in a close race.

Erdogan instrumentalizing women's rights

The New Welfare Party (YRP) recently joined Erdogan's People's Alliance. That party's demand to abolish Law 6284 — which obliges the state to protect women from violence and, if necessary, to guarantee them anonymity — has led to indignation in Turkey. At least 234 women in Turkey were victims of femicide in 2022, and the We Will Stop Femicide platform lists an additional 245 suspected cases.

Laws protecting women have long been a thorn in the side of Islamist communities and parties in Turkey. They have blamed such laws for rising divorce rates, and see them as an expression of Western interference in Muslim-Turkish family structures. These Islamic groups have put significant pressure on Erdogan's AKP government to reverse such laws. Just two years ago, Turkey withdrew from the international Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women.

Allied with conservatives, ultranationalists

The addition of the YRP brings Erdogan's electoral alliance to four parties, the other three being the Islamic-conservative AKP, the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP). In Germany, constitutional protection authorities have been monitoring the structures of these three parties for years — though not the parties themselves.

Hand salute, hand stretched upwards shows just small and forefinger.
The Gray Wolves are known for their characteristic hand salute Image: Imago/M. Trammer

The MHP and BBP are rooted in the nationalist "Ulkucu" movement, better known as the Gray Wolves. German authorities list the far-right organization as ultranationalist, antisemitic and racist. Convinced of the superiority of the Turkish nation, they see mainly Kurds, Jews, Armenians and Christians as their enemies. They aim for a homogeneous state of all Turkic peoples under Turkish leadership, from the Balkans to western China.

Erdogan's largest partner in the alliance, the MHP, is "the original organization of the Gray Wolves," the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) told DW. The Federation of Turkish Democratic Idealist Associations in Germany represents the MHP's interests in Germany, according to the BfV. It says that, with 7,000 members, it is the largest umbrella organization within the Gray Wolves' group.

Erdogan's second major partner, the BBP, is also rooted in the Gray Wolves' ideology. The party sees Islam as an important component of Turkish identity. The BBP is believed to be behind numerous political murders in Turkey, and its members are also alleged to have been involved in the 2007 assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Its organization in Germany, according to the BfV, is the Federation of World Order in Europe.

Ties to Milli Gorus, Turkish Hezbollah

Erdogan's new partner, the YRP, is rooted in the ideology of Milli Gorus, whose structures are also under surveillance in Germany. It wants to replace the "Western order of injustice" with an Islamic "just order," according to the BfV. The YRP is currently polling at 0.8% to 2% of the vote.

Round purple sign that reads 6284 and the Turkish word, Uygula
Islamists want to get rid of the Law 6284, which combats violence against womenImage: Serra Akcan

The Islamist Hüda-Par party — which, according to the North Rhine-Westphalia State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, is close to Turkish Hezbollah — also supports Erdogan. Back in the 1990s, Turkish Hezbollah tortured and murdered numerous human rights activists, businesspeople and politicians in Anatolia. According to German authorities, the group has 400 members in Germany and is also being monitored.

Government shows support for orthodox communities

In recent years, Erdogan has built up a strong power apparatus. He created his own elite by means of state contracts, nepotism and corruption, and endowed numerous Muslim orders with privileges. Should he lose the election, that elite would lose influence and wealth — which is presumably why Menzil, Turkey's largest orthodox Sufi order, recently announced its support for Erdogan's alliance.

Erdogan's electoral alliance is a combination of political Islam and ultranationalism, according to the Austrian political scientist Thomas Schmidinger. "Menzil in particular has already replaced the Gulen movement as one of the AKP's most important religious networks since the coup attempt in 2016," Schmidinger told DW, adding that it makes sense for the order to try and defend its newfound privileges.

In 2016, the Turkish government declared the Gulen movement a terrorist organization suspected of being behind the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. From the time Erdogan came to power in 2002 until 2016, the movement was an important AKP ally.

'Elections can only be rigged to a certain extent'

Should Erdogan win the vote on May 14, Schmidinger does not expect any immediate political changes. Erdogan will likely continue to pursue an aggressive foreign policy to compensate for domestic problems, he said.

Police vans and police, other men outside a building with a sign in Turkish that also mentions Milli Gorus.
In 2008, police raided the Milli Gorus headquarters in western GermanyImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture-alliance

However, Schmidinger said an election victory for the governing electoral alliance looks unlikely. Due to the failed economic policy and poor crisis management after the massive earthquakes in February, the AKP-led alliance is no longer backed by a majority of the electorate, he said.

"Even in Turkey, elections can only be rigged to a certain extent," he added, referring to allegations of fraud in previous years.

Schmidinger said he doubted Erdogan would voluntarily concede the field in the event of a defeat. The Turkish state is, after all, largely controlled by Erdogan's cronies, he argued. Erdogan's followers have stocked up on weapons since the attempted coup, Schmidinger added, which could make armed conflicts possible. As a result, he said, even in the event of an election defeat, a change of regime might not go smoothly.

This article was originally written in German.

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas