Turkish nationalists look set for comeback in elections

Ahead of general elections on Sunday, the leader of Turkey’s hardline nationalists flung a hangman’s noose from a podium to make a point during a political rally: the prime minister is soft on terrorism and should hang the imprisoned leader of Kurdish rebels.Turkey has abolished the death penalty, and there’s little chance nationalist Devlet Bahceli will get his wish for now.

But his Nationalist Action Party is expected to make a comeback in a sign of growing frustration with the guerrilla problem as well as scepticism about Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

Opinion polls indicate the party, known by its Turkish acronym MHP, is likely to return to parliament after a five-year absence and could become the third-largest group of lawmakers. The same polls suggest the Islamic-rooted party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to retain a majority of seats, albeit by a slimmer margin.

Even so, the MHP could emerge as a key player in any effort to form a coalition, though it is hard to tell where its allegiances might lie in a showdown between Erdogan’s camp and a secular opposition that believes he is trying to impose Islam on society.

The MHP has secular traditions, but many supporters come from the same traditional background as poor, conservative Muslims who back the ruling party.

The nationalist party has tried to harness anger over surging violence by separatist rebels from Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish minority. It is also exploiting a growing view that the EU has been overbearing and arrogant as Turkey tries to join the European club.

Bahceli has urged stronger action against the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan’s rebel Kurdish Labour Party, or PKK, and against Iraqi Kurds who many in Turkey believe are at least tacitly cooperating with guerrillas striking Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.

Bahceli threw the hangman’s noose after Erdogan poked fun at him for reluctantly agreeing to abolish the death penalty as part of EU-oriented reforms in 2002, when the nationalists were a junior member of the coalition government. Bahceli said Erdogan should have used his parliamentary majority to engineer the execution of Ocalan.

“If we have the majority, I will bring back hanging for war and terror crimes,” Bahceli said at another rally in a husky smoker’s voice made more hoarse from constant public speaking. Bringing back capital punishment would require a constitutional change. Bahceli, a former lecturer in economics, took control of the party in 1997 and ousted radicals, restraining the street fighting of young party members.

Battles in the 1970s between leftists and the Gray Wolves, an organisation that Bahceli helped form as a student in the 1960s and which acts as the party’s youth wing, killed around 5,000 people and prompted the military to seize power in 1980 to restore control. Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who wounded Pope John Paul II in 1981, was a Gray Wolf.

Bahceli often appears reserved and unassuming, despite his past radical activities. Followers greet him by clasping their fingers into a “wolf” sign.

One candidate on the nationalist party ticket is Naim Suleymanoglu, a three-time Olympic gold medallist in weightlifting who is known as the “Pocket Hercules” for his diminutive size. An ethnic Turk from Bulgaria, Suleymanoglu defected to Turkey in 1986.

The party supports a military incursion into northern Iraq to root out Kurdish rebels there.

Zeynel, a medical student, said he would vote for Bahceli and accused Erdogan of doing “nothing” against the guerrillas. Yet he refused to give his last name, not wanting to be publicly identified with a party that opponents describe as fascist and racist.

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