x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Turkish right-wingers 'victims of plot' as leaked videos expose extramarital affairs

Ten high-level members of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, have resigned after their affairs were revealed, threatening the party's chances of winning seats in the parliamentary elections due next month.

Deniz Bolukbasi, a politician from the opposition Nationalist Action Party, centre, says his party, the MHP, is the target of 'an AKP-sponsored assassination attempt aimed at the MHP's political existence'.
Deniz Bolukbasi, a politician from the opposition Nationalist Action Party, centre, says his party, the MHP, is the target of 'an AKP-sponsored assassination attempt aimed at the MHP's political existence'.

ISTANBUL // Turkey's right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, the third largest party in parliament, has been hit by the anonymous publication of videos exposing extramarital affairs of leading party members, in an alleged dirty tricks campaign in the run-up to parliamentary elections on June 12.

The videos have led to the resignation of 10 high-level MHP members, including several vice-chairmen and the party's secretary general. Prosecutors have launched an investigation, but there have been no arrests.

Election campaigns in Turkey, where vicious personal attacks on rival politicians are routine, have never been for the faint-hearted. But the current scandal marks new territory even for seasoned politicians, especially since it could have far-reaching political consequences.

"This is very serious," Bulent Akarcali, a former government minister and political insider who served in parliament for more than 20 years until 2002, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Turkey had seen efforts before to smear politicians or parties, he said, but not on this scale.

Polls say the MHP, currently at 15 per cent or less, could drop below 10 per cent of the nationwide vote on June 12. In Turkey, parties with less than 10 per cent of the vote cannot enter parliament. A MHP meltdown could boost the number of seats for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which is seeing support of between 45 and 50 per cent and widely expected to win the elections.

Without the MHP in parliament, the number of seats for the AKP could rise from 331 at present to more than 367, giving the party a two-thirds majority and, critically, a towering position in the work on a new constitution, scheduled to start after the elections. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and AKP leader, told a television interviewer this month that his party would be trying to find a consensus with other parties on the new constitution. But critics accuse the AKP of having become more authoritarian and wanting to write the new constitution alone.

With the speculation about Mr Erdogan's constitutional plans in mind, the MHP and others say the AKP was behind the sex video scandal, a charge it denies.

Deniz Bolukbasi, an MHP deputy chairman who resigned last weekend, said in his resignation letter, faxed to the Agence France-Presse news agency, that the MHP was the target of "an AKP-sponsored assassination attempt aimed at the MHP's political existence.

"The dark faces behind this ugly political plot, both at home and abroad, will come to light as part of the ongoing investigation," Mr Bolukbasi, a retired ambassador, wrote in his letter.

Devlet Bahceli, the MHP leader, suggested that followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher living in the United States and thought to be close to the Erdogan government, may be involved.

Almost a year ago, the leader of another opposition party, Deniz Baykal of the secularist Republican People's Party, or CHP, resigned after video footage showing him in the bedroom with his mistress, a CHP deputy, appeared on the internet. Mr Baykal also accused the government, but some observers said Mr Baykal may have been brought down by members of his own party who were unhappy with his course. The same may be happening within the MHP now, some commentators say.

The new videos were posted on the internet by a group called Different Nationalists who claimed to represent MHP dissidents who wanted the party leadership to go. The identities of the self-described dissidents are unknown. Authorities have barred access to the website.

Mr Akarcali, the former minister, said it was unlikely that the government had ordered the publication of the MHP videos. "No ruling party can do this, it's too dangerous" in case the public should find out, he said. As prime minister and AKP leader, Mr Erdogan had a strong incentive not to allow such a dirty tricks campaign under his leadership, because his own credibility was at stake, Mr Akarcali added.

The prime minister had to do all he could to solve the case and not just because of ethical reasons, Mr Akarcali said.

"If the organisation behind this is so powerful, it could turn against someone else tomorrow," he said.

Mustafa Elitas, a leading member of the AKP, suggested militant opponents of the government may have engineered the scandal. In a campaign speech quoted by newspapers yesterday, Mr Elitas said members of Ergenekon, a group prosecutors say plotted to stage a coup d'etat against the religiously conservative government, were trying to strengthen the secularist CHP by deflating the MHP. Mr Akarcali and other observers dismissed that idea.

While the search for the people behind the MHP videos continues, observers have been wondering about the immediate political fallout. Some believe the embattled party could even win voters as a result. "Many people who did not contemplate giving their vote to the MHP before are now saying that they will vote MHP to foil the plot," Hakan Bayrakci, the head of Sonar, a polling firm, told the Aksam newspaper. Others think the videos will not have much effect at the ballot box.

But for a party so perilously close to the 10 per-cent line, even a small dent in voter support could have major effects, Adil Gur, the head of A&G, another polling firm, said yesterday.

The MHP had been struggling with a perceived lack of political vision and other shortcomings even before the publication of the tapes, Mr Gur added. "Had the scandal hit a bigger party, we would be talking about a drop of two per cent here or there, nothing serious. But for the MHP, even a little thing could become a problem."

tseibert@thenational.ae