Longtime leader of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli lacks appeal with younger voters
Ankara (AFP) - Members of Turkey's right-wing MHP party were prevented from holding a congress Sunday aimed at unseating longtime leader Devlet Bahceli and recovering ground lost to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party.
Dissidents from the Nationalist Movement Party launched a campaign to oust Bahceli, 68, after a general election in November in which the party shed half its support -- taking just 40 seats in the 550-member parliament compared to 80 five months previously.
Bahceli, who has led the party for 19 years, said in January that the next party congress would take place in 2018, meaning he would be in charge until then.
But polls show MHP members hungry for change, with over 500 signing a petition in support of holding an extraordinary congress to expedite his ouster.
In a show of unity, MHP's four contenders for leadership, including charismatic former interior minister Meral Aksener, arrived Sunday near the Ankara hotel -- the venue of the congress -- in the same vehicle, escorted by hundreds of cars.
But they faced iron barricades, with police stationing water cannon nearby and denied entry into the hotel.
"Party congresses not party leaders will have the final say," the four candidates said in a joint declaration, near the police barricades.
"Turkish democracy and law were trampled upon," they said.
Party members waving Turkish flags outside the hotel shouted "Bahceli, resign!".
Replacing Bahceli, who lacks appeal with younger voters, could boost support for the MHP at the expense of Erdogan's conservative ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The outcome could jeopardise Erdogan's ambitions of winning a big enough majority in the next elections to allow him to change the constitution to boost his powers.
- Party congress in June -
Four contenders to succeed Bahceli have emerged, including 59-year-old Aksener, a former deputy speaker of parliament seen as the strongest candidate.
They have vowed to press ahead with the congress, despite the legality of the meeting being called into question and police sealing off the venue.
"There is no such security measure even at the Syrian border," another dissident candidate Sinan Ogan told reporters.
The country's highest appeal court said this week it will rule on the issue within a month, while two lower courts have issued conflicting decisions.
Aksener refused to leave the scene unless she was granted a written official document that they were barred from entry, to use in their legal battle.
Koray Aydin, one of Bahceli's rivals, said on Sunday they would wait for the appeals court's ruling and hold a congress in June in a bid to quash a party law banning leadership change at extraodinary congresses.
MHP lawyer Yucel Bulut said this week holding a congress was "legally impossible" and Ankara governor's office said it would ban the gathering.
Bahceli's challengers accused the government of interfering in the legal process -- allegations Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag dismissed Saturday as "slander".
The AKP needs the support of MHP lawmakers to change the constitution to fulfil Erdogan's ambitions of having a US-style executive presidency.
Like the AKP, the MHP draws its support mainly from conservative Turks in Anatolia and the Black Sea region.
Established in 1969, it was an ultra-radical formation in the 1970s and 80s, with its armed Grey Wolves wing operating death squads that killed numerous left-wing activists and students.
Bahceli took control of the MHP in 1997, seeking to turn it into a mainstream political movement.
The party vehemently opposes any peace deal with the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that the army is battling in the southeast.
Bahceli said this month that Erdogan could be sure of the MHP's full support on security as long as the "fight against terrorism continues non-stop."