Turkish police sealed off a hotel in Ankara on Sunday to prevent dissident members of an opposition party from holding a snap meeting, which, if it went ahead, could potentially thwart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plans to expand his power and authority.
Dissidents from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) planned to gather at the Büyük Anadolu Hotel — in defiance of a court order — to hold a meeting and discuss ousting their party chairman, Devlet Bahçeli. Bahçeli has led MHP for the last two decades. At the snap congress, dissidents were hoping to change party rules which would allow for his removal.
Erdogan is seeking a "completely new constitution" for Turkey, which would effectively give him considerably more authority by centralizing power in the office of the president rather than in parliament.
To call a referendum and make those changes, he needs the blessing of Bahçeli's party.
While Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party pulled off an impressive victory in last November's parliamentary election, he was still about 13 seats short of the 330 needed to call a referendum on any constitutional change.
The MHP — which has been described as "far-right," "ultra-nationalist," and in some instances, "fascist" — won about 12 percent of the vote and 40 parliamentary seats, a poor showing compared to previous years.
Bahçeli and his loyalists are willing to throw their support behind Erdogan. However, dissident leaders within MHP — including former interior minister Meral Aksener — have vowed to oppose Erdogan presidential plan and defend Turkey's parliamentary system.
Mustafa Akyol, a liberal writer and journalist, notes in an op-ed in the Hurriyet Daily News that the MHP is the only party in Turkey which "shares a base" with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Akyol describes Bahçeli as a "darling of the pro-Erdogan media," compared to Aksener, who has been depicted as "a pawn of nefarious conspiracy."
"Many people believe that the president and his men would love to keep Bahçeli in power, to keep the MHP weak," Akyol writes.
On Sunday, dissidents from MHP issued a statement which accused Erdogan's AK Party of staging "a coup" against Turkey's judicial process, writing that a potential change in the MHP "became the AK Party government's nightmare."
Police set up barricades outside the hotel where the snap meeting was scheduled to take place on Saturday, and on Sunday up to 5000 dissident party members and supporters had gathered there to protest the police action, chanting "Bahçeli should resign." Police in riot gear blocked the roads leading to the hotel with wire fences backed by armored vehicles equipped with water cannons.
"If the MHP gets stronger it will become an alternative to the AK Party," Ibrahim Dizdar told Reuters. "The government is trying to prevent us because they are seeing our excitement here today."
In a speech broadcast live on Turkish television earlier this month, Erdogan said earlier this month that the new constitution and political system were urgent requirements for Turkey, not his personal agenda.
He said that the new system would quell internal problems and thwart efforts of some politicians to "terrorize" parliament.
"You see what has been happening," Erdogan said. "They are trying to terrorize the parliament. You won't see such incidents when the governmental system shifts to a presidential system."
Erdogan wants to oust the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) from parliament, describing them as terrorists, seeking to portray the party as a wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Erdogan, meanwhile, has struggled to crush the ongoing PKK insurgency in the country's southeast. Last month, his aide told news outlets that Erdogan has dismissed all possibility of peace negotiations and won't stop cracking down on the insurgents until they surrender.
Removing HDP from parliament would also remove those lawmakers' immunity, meaning they could be charged by the Turkish government as terrorists or supporters of terrorism.
Last month, brawls between AKP and HDP lawmakers broke out in parliament.
Video of the incident showed members of parliament punching, kicking, and hurling glasses at each other as others launched themselves into the fray from meeting room tables. HDP deputy chair Idris Baluken was subsequently hospitalized with a dislocated shoulder, the party said.
Relations between Erdogan and the HDP have been acrimonious for some time, and deteriorated sharply since June 2015's general election, which saw the pro-Kurdish party pass the 10 percent vote threshold required to secure a parliamentary presence for the first time. In the process, it blocked Erdogan's AKP from gaining a majority large enough to fulfil his ambition of altering the constitution and transferring executive powers to his office.Anthony Skinner, director of the UK-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, told Bloomberg that Erdogan could be hoping that a continued onslaught against Kurdish militants would curry favor with "staunch Turkish nationalists" from the nationalist MHP, who were never in favor of peace talks with the Kurds. "He's working on multiple fronts to enhance the odds of success, and removing the HDP is part of the equation."