Cablegate: Nationalist Action Party: Good Cop, Bad Cop

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Classified By: POL Counselor Daniel O'Grady, for reasons 1.4 (b,d)

1. (C) Summary. Though not in full election mode, the
Nationalist Action Party (MHP) appears to have begun its
planning for national elections now set for mid-2011. Talks
with senior party members suggest that the strategic party
organs are kicking into gear to develop an election and
post-election strategy while individual members are
increasing their relentless tactical criticism of AKP. The
approach has a "good cop, bad cop" effect, in which the party
says encouraging things behind the scenes while MHP's baser
instincts give it an ugly outward image. Whether the two
approaches can meld into a coherent message is debatable.
End summary.

2. (C) The MHP has gone to great lengths to square a
political circle: its core grassroots membership is starkly
nationalistic, fairly xenophobic, and, at least in the past,
prone to violence; but the party aspires to become a truly
national party, which would require support from
intellectuals, cosmopolitan cities, and ethnic and religious
minorities. So far, the 13-year leadership of Devlet Bahceli
has partly succeeded in rebranding the party. Violence is
mostly relegated to the past and is no longer tolerated; the
party administration includes a number of professors, former
ambassadors, economists, and intellectuals; and the party is
in no danger of failing to pass the ten percent national
barrier to enter parliament.

3. (C) Nonetheless, it cannot yet claim to be a "national"
party, in that its votes are concentrated in small pockets of
central Anatolia. The two main obstacles to MHP's breaking
out nationally are that its xenophobic, violent past still
repulses liberals and minority groups, and that MHP competes
directly with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)
for the large block of mildly conservative, Sunni, Turkish
voters in the Anatolian heartland. To address these
weaknesses, the MHP appears to be preparing a twin message
that MHP has the experience and ideology to lead a unified
Turkey, and that AKP is the number one threat to building
such a unified society.


4. (C) MHP's General Secretary, Cihan Pacaci, outlined for
us the constructive side of MHP's strategy as general
legislative elections in 2011 near. He noted that the MHP
had previously been a fringe party with a violent reputation,
and has worked since Devlet Bahceli became chairman in 1997
to reverse this image. Under Bahceli, he argued, the MHP has
evolved its nationalist focus from being based on ethnic
Turkish nationalism to being based on the shared culture,
history, and language of all the people of Turkey, regardless
of their ethnic or religious background. An influx of
academics, bureaucrats, and seasoned politicians from other
conservative parties have helped to give the MHP a
responsible image.

5. (C) Nothing was more beneficial to its rebranding effort,
however, than the chance to prove itself as junior partner in
Turkey's longest serving coalition government from 1999 to
2002. Pacaci claims that provinces in the western Anatolian
interior are now firmly in MHP's camp and in some coastal or
religious provinces -- considered to be the heartland of the
Republican People's Party (CHP) and the AKP respectively --
MHP is competitive. It is only natural, in his view, that as
AKP's luster wears off, MHP will fill the void in religious
nationalist provinces such as Kayseri, Sivas, and Erzurum.

6. (C) Pacaci was not blind to MHP's shortcomings, and said
the party was working to address them before elections. The
first major concern for the party is that, despite its
popular ideology and previous government experience, the MHP
suffers from being associated with the economic meltdown of
February, 2001. To counter this, the MHP is planning to
highlight its cadre of economists and other academics as part
of its election campaign. The second main concern is that
large portions of the voting public -- particularly leftists
and ethnic and religious minorities -- remember the
xenophobic and violent MHP of the 1970s. Pacaci was quick to

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note that not all cultural groups are distant to the MHP,
noting that the MHP has no trouble attracting Arab or
Circassian voters. He said it is the groups that have been
most prominently in the news recently -- the Kurds and Alevis
-- who are most skeptical of the MHP. Pacaci was optimistic
that the Alevis would warm to the MHP. He noted that before
they voted for the CHP, many Alevi groups had voted for Adnan
Menderes's Justice Party in the 1950s. Today, with the AKP's
religious motives under suspicion and the CHP making
statements offensive to Alevis, the MHP could be able to win
Alevis with its message of national unity through tolerance
of diversity.

7. (C) Pacaci conceded that the Kurds would be a lost cause
for the MHP in 2011. Contented Kurds will vote for AKP and
disaffected Kurds will vote for the Peace and Democracy Party
(BDP), leaving little room for the MHP to make headway among
a highly skeptical ethnic group. He asserted, however, that
Kurds would begin to vote for the MHP after 2011. "Once we
are elected into government, we can make the kinds of changes
AKP is trying to make without dividing the country," he said.
"Then the Kurds will no longer be suspicious of us."


8. (U) The outward face of MHP, however, does not resemble
Pacaci's nuanced picture. Instead, the MHP is projecting an
angry image and their members seem increasingly prone to
verbal outbursts and attacks. The parliamentary debates over
AKP's National Unity Project highlighted the discomfort the
MHP (and CHP) is feeling. On February 3, MHP's anger brought
Parliament to fisticuffs when Osman Durmus -- one of MHP's
more academic faces -- sarcastically compared Prime Minister
Erdogan to the Prophet Mohammed. MHP Chairman Bahceli later
warned AKP members to not come within a meter of MHP MPs'
seats in the chamber, prompting Prime Minister Erdogan to
speculate on Bahceli's mental health and democratic

9. (C) MHP Deputy Chairman Oktay Vural repeated sarcastic
remarks against the Prime Minister in a recent meeting with
us, and alleged that Turkish politics have now entered
"election mode." Vural himself then entered full election
mode, describing Erdogan as the "number one threat" to
Turkish democracy. He complained bitterly that the vast
majority of the media is subservient to the AKP, making it
impossible for opposition parties' criticisms to get a fair
hearing, and expressed the concern that his phones are tapped
and that "any time" he or his family or friends could be
arrested within the scope of the Ergenekon investigation. He
described the AKP as fundamentally anti-democratic in nature
and structure, beholden to a religion above democracy, and
questioned how anyone could believe that any step such a
party could take would in any way further democracy. Vural
denied that anything AKP has done held any real democratic
value, and claimed instead that all of the AKP's "democratic"
reforms either protected the party itself from legal action
or was done with the intent to curry votes among undecided
voter groups. He summed up by saying that it was the MHP's
duty to inform the Turkish public of the harm AKP had caused
Turkey over the last eight years, a job he clearly relishes.


10. (C) MHP's two faces -- responsible and intellectual on
the one hand, aggressive and angry on the other --
individually have their political merits, but may not mesh in
practice. Prime Minister Erdogan has already thrown the
accusation of anti-democratic values back at MHP ("Mr.
Bahceli would know more about fascism than I do."), and an
attack dog image could serve to undermine the party's
responsible image if negatively spun. Still, the fact that
members of MHP's senior leadership are thinking creatively
and positively on minority issues suggests that MHP could be
a constructive actor in Turkish politics, if it so chose.

© Scoop Media

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