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Turkey's Kurds stand with ultranationalists after campus murder

The murder of an ultranationalist college student reveals how Turkey's peace process with the Kurds and the growing Islamization of politics has impacted Turkish nationalists.
Supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) make the grey wolf sign of the party as they wait for the arrival of party leader Devlet Bahceli during a rally in Istanbul October 5, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3FMJT

In the midst of the domestic security bill debate Feb. 20 in Turkey's parliament, Nationalist Action Party (MHP) deputy leader Oktay Vural sought permission to make an announcement. Known as a serious and reserved politician, Vural broke into tears as he discussed the murder of college student Firat Yilmaz Cakiroglu, 24.

Cakiroglu was a senior at Ege University in the city of Izmir. This was not a random murder. Cakiroglu was the representative of the MHP’s youth organization Ulku Ocaklari, known as the "gray wolves" on campus. Cakiroglu had told his parents, MHP deputies and the police that Kurdish groups — allegedly affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — had threatened him several times before his brutal stabbing.

Tears streamed down Vural’s face as he asked parliament, with a trembling voice: “What kind of new security measures can this bill provide to prevent cases like this? Firat waited for 45 minutes for the ambulance. He had sought protection from the police, and we warned the college administration for possible tension.” Cakiroglu died from loss of blood. Seven other students were injured.

Vural’s announcement marked the only few minutes of silence in the parliament.

#FiratCakiroglu remained the most trending topic on social media for days. People from all walks of life, including Kurds, condemned the murder. One popular tweet stated: "Don’t worry, you will not become a gray wolf [Turkish nationalist] for standing up against #FiratCakiroglu’s murder, you would just be human."

Strong reactions and protests emerged in several cities, some resulting in clashes between protesters and the police, as well as between protesters and other groups.

Sinan Ogan, an outspoken MHP deputy, told Al-Monitor, “The events are portrayed in mainstream media as two opposing student groups fighting. The fight is between terrorists and Turkish nationalists. We cannot accept that PKK terrorists are assessed on the same level as Turkish nationalists or any other student association.”

Ogan shared his concerns regarding safety on college campuses throughout Turkey, particularly those in Ankara and Istanbul. “Immediate security measures should be taken at several campuses," he said. "We have asked the government for action, but all our pleas fell on deaf ears. The PKK has established itself on campuses and is bullying the students. Both the college administrators and the government is silent about that.”

This murder touched a nerve for many reasons. In the late 1970s, Turkey witnessed protests and violent clashes on its streets and college campuses, which eventually led to the 1980 military coup. During this time, the gray wolves got a bad reputation as the MHP’s aggressive and ultra-nationalist armed wing. In the 1990s, they were perceived as the backbone of Turkey's “deep state,” and even as the deep state itself. However, since 2000, the MHP has undergone a significant transformation and refrained from violence. This murder brought back fears about unrest on college campuses. It also unsettled the belief that the gray wolves are armed and violent. Cakiroglu was known as a passionate patriot, but never engaged in violence.

Similarly, MHP's leadership has constantly asked its youth organization to refrain from aggression or even joining street protests. After the murder, MHP Chairman Devlet Bahceli told the media: “Our anger is raging. College campuses now resemble the caves of the Qandil Mountains,” which the PKK and other fighters control. He also warned his supporters and the public that any "plan to pull the MHP into street fights … will fail."

A similar concern was voiced by Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish leader of the People's Democracy Party (HDP). “[President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has declared that he wishes to have 400 deputies after the June elections," Demirtas said in an interview after the murder. "That means 75% of the vote. This is only possible if the HDP and MHP cannot pass the 10% voting threshold. We hear allegations that this is the AKP’s [Justice and Development Party's] plan, and they would like us to fight with the MHP and other Kurdish groups to achieve this goal.”

Demirtas offered his condolences about Cakiroglu, and asked that the perpetrators be brought to justice. Although six suspects were initially taken into custody, on Feb. 25, all were released. Despite calls from the public, the dean of Cakiroglu’s college has not resigned.

Erdogan has many reasons to fear the MHP. The AKP and MHP share a sizeable number of constituents, particularly in the western parts of Turkey. Furthermore, the MHP is the only political party of the Turkish right that presents an alternative to the AKP. Burak Bilgehan Ozpek, a professor of international relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, raised a red flag about Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Feb. 23 statement regarding cooperation between the HDP and MHP. “It is a valid concern that Davutoglu wants to prevent the MHP from taking a determined position against the AKP and possibly cooperating with the HDP,” Ozpek said.

Notably, the AKP has been collecting a significant amount of Kurdish votes in the southeast by standing up for Kurdish rights. If the MHP and HDP reach an amicable position, this could produce negative returns for the AKP in the elections. In a sense, all pundits seem to tacitly agree that the AKP will win if the HDP and MHP keep fighting in parliament, even more so if they disturb the peace process and fight in the streets.

But what if the HDP and MHP maintain a tacit understanding to keep off the streets and respect the peace process? Or, beyond that, what if they cooperate in their resistance against the AKP, just as they have in the parliamentary talks on the domestic security bill? Bozpek concurred that MHP and HDP cooperation is possible in the face of the AKP’s draconian power grab.

In just the last 10 days, the HDP and MHP — seen as two uncompromising opponents in the Turkish political spectrum — have indeed cooperated in their rhetoric and actions against the AKP: Cakiroglu’s murder, opposition to the domestic security bill and the now notorious Tomb of Suleiman Shah operation have revealed the mutual interests of these two political parties. Although for different reasons, both the MHP and HDP criticized the AKP for not being truthful about the facts of the operation to the Turkish public.

Cakiroglu’s murder shook certain power centers in Turkey. It also coincided with the Suleiman Shah operation and the domestic security bill, all of which could have easily polarized Kurdish and Turkish nationalists. The MHP, though an established political party of 46 years, has started to adapt to the times, particularly with the impact of the Kurdish peace process and the increasing Islamization of politics over the last decade.

In new Turkey, the MHP is a player who has changed for the better. In the increasingly violent and volatile political spectrum, Turkish nationalists are no longer seen as ultra-nationalist aggressors.

Turkey is a country of perplexing observations. For example, this week, MHP leader Bahceli openly challenged the Turkish army's chief of general staff while Erdogan defended the general. This marks a rare moment, where the head of a Turkish nationalist party takes on the leadership of the armed forces. Despite the rhetoric of the militant gray wolves, the facts have indicated for a long time that the peace process has pacified the Turkish nationalists. Is new Turkey ready for the tacit yet game-changing cooperation between the MHP and HDP?

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