The head of the Turkish mafia, Alaattin Çakıcı, has been terrorizing rivals and those who have political views different from his own for decades. As one of the most prominent figures in a right-wing extremist group called The Gray Wolves, which in the past has focused its anger on leftists, Kurds and Alawites, Çakıcı is believed to be responsible for at least 41 political assassinations. In 2004, a court sentenced him to 19 years in prison, in part for the murder of his ex-wife in front of his son.
Many people breathed a sigh of relief when they closed it. One of the most dangerous enemies of Turkish democracy had been removed from public life for an extended period.
Now, however, Çakıcı is back. He was released from high-security Sincan Prison last April as part of an amnesty related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, he has increasingly become a voice in Turkish politics.
Shortly after his release, Çakıcı visited his ally Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the far-right MHP party and a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s coalition. In November, he issued a death threat to opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. “Watch your step,” he wrote on Twitter. And when thousands of students took to the streets of Istanbul earlier this year to protest the appointment of a confidant Erdogan as rector of the renowned Bosphorus University, he called the protesters terrorists.
Çakıcı’s recently expanded public profile is the expression of a fundamental change of power in Turkey. For many years, Erdoğan followed a religious agenda. But after the 2016 coup attempt that included supporters of Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, it has targeted ultranationalists. Since the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections, he has ruled in coalition with Bahçeli’s secular nationalist extremist movement (MHP) party.
The party is the political arm of the Gray Wolves. It can only attract around 7 percent support for political polls, but its importance has increased massively in recent months, as has the influence of Gray Wolves veterans like Çakıcı. Whether it is a conflict over natural gas with Greece, the fight against terrorism or Ankara’s approach to minorities, government policy is increasingly influenced by the MHP.
The extent of the influence of right-wing extremists was seen in mid-March, when the attorney general, at Bahçeli’s insistence, filed a petition with the country’s highest court to ban the second opposition party from Turkey, the left. -Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
Erdogan has been consistent in his efforts to circumvent party bans. His own party, the Conservative Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP), was almost banned in 2008. Ultimately, however, he succumbed to pressure from Bahçeli, according to Ankara observers. “Bahçeli has taken Turkey’s most powerful man hostage,” says Turkish journalist Can Dündar. “Erdoğan carries the drum, but Bahçeli delivers the rhythm.”
Many Europeans see the Turkish president as a kind of current sultan, who can do whatever he wants in Turkey. In fact, however, Erdogan has never been strong enough to rule the country on his own.
At the beginning of his term, Erdoğan cooperated with the Liberals, taking steps to prepare his country for accession to the European Union and open Turkey to foreign investors. He later formed a coalition with the Islamist movement Gülen, which shares Erdoğan’s contempt for the secular elite. Together, Erdoğan and Gülen imprisoned hundreds of opposition activists, condemning them as terrorists in a series of exhibition trials. When the Gülen movement became too powerful, he tried to strike a balance with the Kurds, with whom he introduced a historic peace process. After the HDP’s success in the 2015 parliamentary elections, however, it also turned its back on them. The only partners left were the ultranationalists.
Presidential confidants report that Erdoğan and Bahçeli actually cannot stand each other. Erdoğan’s roots lie in the Islamist Milli-Görüş movement, which was oppressed in the 1980s and 1990s by right-wing extremists and Kemalists in the state apparatus. He, himself, is hardly a passionate nationalist, with the Muslim community, the umma, for him always more important than the nation. When he came to power in 2003, he pledged to break with the right-wing extremist networks of the army, police and the judiciary, the so-called “deep state.”
Now, however, the “deep state” is more powerful than ever. Because Erdoğan does not have enough loyalists of his own, he replaced supporters of the Gülen movement in the judiciary, police and army with loyalists of the Gray Wolves after the 2016 coup attempt, according to MP Mustafa Yeneroğlu, a former member of the AKP leadership since it changed loyalties to the Liberal-Conservative Party Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA). “Erdogan has turned precisely those powers that have been fighting us for years into the covert rulers of the country,” he says.
Right-wing extremists are no longer particularly shy when it comes to seizing power. Those who dare to criticize the MHP are threatened or even, like opposition politician Selçuk Özdağ, even attacked.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the deputy leader of the conservative Mule Future Party, Özdağ was reluctant to point out inconsistencies in Bahçeli’s political platform. In January, he was attacked by several men who used the club in front of his home in Ankara, beaten so hard that he ended up in hospital.
Özdağ is not the only government critic who has been the victim of alleged right-wing attacks in recent weeks. In early March, journalist Levent Gültekin was beaten by 25 men in front of his Istanbul office after referring to the MHP’s ideology on the air as a “disease.”
According to Özdağ, the current situation in Turkey is similar to what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when right-wing extremist groups, especially gray wolves, hunted down their opponents. Thousands of leftists, Kurds and Alawites were killed then, often at the behest of the state.
Erdogan tolerates right-wing extremists. Although tens of thousands of opposition activists have been arrested in Turkey in recent years, attacks on parliamentarians and journalists have gone unpunished. Alaattin Çakıcı, head of the mafia, has also been allowed to spread his message of hatred without any consequences.
Apparently, Erdogan cannot afford to offend the MHP. The Turkish economy is in crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation even worse. Erdogan’s AKP, meanwhile, has fallen to 30 percent. His re-election to the presidency depends entirely on the support of right-wing extremists.
Back to the nineties
And re-election is the only thing that matters to the president, with other political goals in the second place, especially reconciliation with the Kurds. At one point, Erdogan granted more rights to the Kurds than any Turkish president he had before. He relaxed the Kurdish language ban and invested billions in infrastructure in southeastern Turkey, where Kurds are in the majority. In 2013, he was on the verge of finding a political solution to the conflict with the Kurdish terrorist organization PKK.
Although, driven by ultranationalists, the president has returned to the warlike policies of the 1990s. Former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş has been in prison since 2016, along with thousands of other HDP members. More than 50 Kurdish mayors were removed from office.
With the measure banning the HDP, Erdogan and right-wing extremist Bahçeli are taking the next step. They are trying to expel the entire Kurdish movement from Turkish politics. “It is our honorable duty to close the HDP on behalf of future generations so that they cannot return with a different name,” Bahçeli says. The Constitutional Court may have sent the application to state prosecutors two weeks ago due to formal errors, but almost no one in Turkey doubts that sooner or later court proceedings will be opened.
The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023. Observers believe that Erdoğan and Bahçeli could, however, call early elections in the autumn to avoid the possibility of economic deterioration. Just three days after prosecutors filed their application for a ban on the HDP, Erdoğan fired the head of the Turkish central bank and decreed the withdrawal of his country from the Istanbul Convention, aimed at preventing violence against the women.
In fact, it seems that Erdoğan is once again following the same strategy that led him to victory in the last elections: the radical polarization of Turkish society.