ANKARA, Turkey — In December 1978, Turkey's Kahramanmaras province exploded in street fighting between left-wing and right-wing extremists that set the stage for a 1980 military coup and haunted the country for years. Most of the violence was blamed on an ultranationalist paramilitary group, the Gray Wolves.
Now, after decades on the fringes of Turkey's turbulent politics, the Gray Wolves have made a leap into the mainstream. They are vying for electoral power in the wake of a remarkable showing in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
Capitalizing on a mood of resurgent nationalism, the Gray Wolves, formally known as the Nationalist Action Party, were running a close second Monday to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Party of the Democratic Left. With 90% of the vote tallied, the race could go either way.
Before the voting, the Gray Wolves were given little chance of breaking the 10% minimum required to hold seats in the 550-member parliament. But they polled 18% of the vote to win 130 seats so far--4 percentage points and three seats behind the Democratic Left. When no party wins an absolute majority, Turkey's president traditionally empowers the party with the most seats to form a coalition government.
"We were hoping to do well," said Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahceli, "but not quite like this."
Party supporters across Turkey celebrated in the streets by flashing the wolf sign--bringing down their two middle fingers to join their thumbs in a figurative lupine snout and lifting their two other fingers to look like wolf ears.
The wolf is a symbol of nationalism inspired by the ancient legend of Asena, the mythological she-wolf who led the Turks out of Central Asia's arid steppes into what is now Turkey.
Political analysts see a direct link between the party's rise and the European Union's rejection of Turkey's bid for full membership two years ago.
European objections to Turkey's human rights record, armed occupation of Cyprus and military campaign against ethnic Kurds who seek self-rule fired nationalist sentiment. Ecevit and the Gray Wolves both benefited from Turkey's wounded pride, analysts say.
Ecevit earned his nationalist credentials during his first stint as prime minister, when he ordered the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. Ecevit is also credited with the capture of Kurdish guerrilla chief Abdullah Ocalan two months ago, but the Gray Wolves helped their cause by demanding Ocalan's execution.
"What most Turks want," said Ayse Ayata, a sociologist at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, "is a leader who is honest and can stand up to the West. Both Ecevit and Bahceli are perceived as such."
Founded in the early 1960s by a charismatic former army colonel, Alparslan Turkes, the Gray Wolves exalt the "pure Turk" over all other ethnic groups.
At the height of the Cold War, the army used the Gray Wolves as a violent counterweight to Turkish Communists. The party's coffers swelled with secret contributions from the government.
By the late 1970s, the Gray Wolves had spun out of state control. Their paramilitary wing fought a campaign against leftist rivals that killed nearly 6,000 people. Ali Agca, who shot Pope John Paul II in a 1981 assassination attempt, is alleged to have been affiliated with the party.
Banned with other parties for seven years after the 1980 coup, the Gray Wolves bounced back with a popular issue in the 1990s, calling for a revived Turkish empire embracing newly independent Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union.
But the party lost support as some of its members allegedly became involved in drug-trafficking, gun-running, extortion and killings of Kurdish dissidents.
Prosecutors cracked down in late 1996, forcing Turkes to start purging extremists. The cleanup accelerated after his death in 1997, when Bahceli, a former economics professor, took over and embraced more centrist positions.
Millions of conservative voters, fed up with corruption scandals involving more established right-wing politicians, flocked to the party. The Gray Wolves also drew support away from Turkey's Islamist movement, which finished first in the 1995 election but abandoned power under pressure from the pro-secular armed forces.
For many Turks, however, the bloodshed of the 1980s remains fresh. Some say they wonder if the Gray Wolves have been tamed.
"I remember seeing my boyfriend shot by them before my eyes," said Melike, a former left-wing activist who has settled for suburban domesticity and would not give her last name. "They terrified me then, they still do today."