PHOTO: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “His party is wedded uncomfortably by power”
Daniel Round writes for EA:
Since the resounding victory of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s Parliamentary elections last November, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated his position and is looking to major constitutional changes that would boost his already considerable power.
However, the President’s position of strength has a significant underside of weakness. Erdoğan is facing not only divisions within the country but also within the AKP, with frustration in some quarters at his personal ambitions and autocratic tendencies.
Divisions Within Power
Both of last year’s Parliamentary elections were widely viewed by observers as referenda on Erdoğan’s rule, despite his name not appearing on the ballot. If AKP’s crushing loss of its majority in last June’s ballot was a blow to Erdoğan’s divisive ambition of transforming the Presidency into the executive branch of government (“Başkanlık sistemi”, or Presidential system), the party’s stunning comeback in November — with 49.5% of the vote — was effectively a vote of confidence in Erdoğan as the only politician with the authority to guide the country through a period of upheaval and uncertainty.
Erdoğan succeeded in resisting coalition government, which would have reduced his power and derailed his plans for a Presidential system and continuing with AKP’s policies. Instead of seeking cross-party consensus and compromise after the June elections, the President and his allies in the government seized upon a volatile political environment to portray AKP as the patriotic party of consistency.
However, although the relationship between Erdoğan and the AKP is a symbiotic one on the surface, a closer look reveals that internal frustrations within the party have grown since he ascended to the Presidency. Removed from the day-to-day operation of the party machinery and yet in a greater position of authority, Erdoğan’s relationship with AKP is now one full of contradictions. The situation has opened the door for dissent from within AKP on a scale previously unseen –– including challenges from disgruntled figures at the top of the party.
Perhaps the most explosive articulation of this new trend was the publication of a book written by Ahmet Sever, the spokesman of former President Abdullah Gül (2007-14), also of AKP. Approved by Gül himself, “Abdullah Gül ile 12 Yil” (“Twelve Years with Abdullah Gül”) rocked Turkey just days after the June election.
The book confirmed long-suspected rifts between then President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan around key areas such as constitutional reform, foreign policy, and the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Combined with the June results, its publication prompted many anti-government activists to envisage the beginning of the end for the AKP project.
Although Gül was not an especially combative President and has since kept a fairly low profile, in recent months he has cautiously criticized Erdoğan on contentious issues around democracy and freedoms. Tellingly this resulted, in February of this year, in Gül’s name being quietly removed from the list of “founding members” on AKP’s official website. Erdoğan loyalists believe that Gül is allied with Fetullah Gülen, the powerful Pennsylvania-based cleric who in a flash went from Erdoğan’s closest ally to an enemy of the state following a graft scandal in 2013. A series of anti-Gülenist clampdowns in the media, judiciary, and police have further endangered the equilibrium between the various groups that made up AKP’s original base.
Among those who have been less guarded than Gül in their criticism of the President is Bülent Arınç, the former Speaker (2002-07) and Deputy Prime Minister (2009-15), and a key AKP player who now cuts an exasperated figure. Although he has had disagreements with Erdoğan over various matters of policy since they co-founded AKP together in 2001, the President’s consolidation of personal power has side-lined him for months, and Arınç’s criticisms have taken a distinctly more personal tone recently. Last year, Arınç said of the cult of personality that has developed around the President, “we were a party of ‘us’, but now we have turned into a party of ‘me’.” Other senior AKP politicians have lined up behind Arınç, signalling that they are sympathetic to his criticisms of the President and that there may be a small but significant portion of the party that would back Arınç if matters came to a head with Erdoğan.
Confirming Gül and Arınç’s unease about a possible Presidential power play, Erdoğan initiated a series of de facto changes after the June elections to overcome some of the constitutional hurdles to his authority. These steps included a restructuring of state bureaucracy and the creation of nine new departments within the office of the President in areas such as defence, security, and energy.
At a remarkable AKP convention in September, Erdoğan managed to tighten his grip on the party’s executive board even though he was not present, with his supporters dominating appointments. Speculation was rife that Erdoğan would encourage loyalist Transport minister Binali Yıldırım to stand against Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for the party leadership, forcing Davutoğlu to capitulate over nominations to the executive positions.
A Crisis Averted?
Given that Erdoğan successfully maneuvered to bolster his position in AKP in between the elections, and given that the party then went on to win triumphantly in November, all of this might already seem fairly irrelevant into 2016. Not only that, but AKP has proven to be extremely resilient in the past, and persistent rumors of significant splits have proven to be baseless time and time again. Party unity and a slavish faith in Erdoğan as a leader among many members have been unbroken by corruption scandals, mass protest, creeping authoritarianism, and challenges from within the state apparatus. Erdoğan is also fortunate in that many disloyal deputies, including Arınç, had to stand down from Parliament in 2015 due to AKP’s strict rules around term limits, curbing the impact of their statements.
However, the seeds of dissent have now been sown. Contentious external factors for AKP such as the Kurdish issue and the economy could further shake the uneasy balance of the party, which has always contained a broad coalition of interests.
Erdoğan may now recognize this reality. Although he returned to the prospect of a Presidential system immediately after AKP regained its majority in November, of late he has been more cautious, focusing instead on foreign policy and other areas that help him to project an aura of statesmanship. Last month he signalled that any Presidential system would include greater checks and balances on the executive branch. AKP is 13 MPs short of the super-majority required to change the constitution, and perhaps Erdoğan realizes he needs to bide his time and build new alliances –– not just with a handful of less hostile deputies from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP), but also within AKP itself.
If he gets his 13 MPs, Erdoğan would then need to take his constitutional reform package to the country, and he would not want to risk dissent from influential AKP figures during a divisive referendum campaign. With both MHP and HDP on the back-foot after November’s losses, and with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) still unable to make major inroads among certain important sections of the electorate, Erdoğan’s biggest obstacle could come from within the party he co-founded 15 years ago.
The principal accomplishment of AKP’s first decade in power was its strengthening of the legitimacy of the state. It opened up positions to some of the groups, such as pious Muslims and conservative Kurds, who had previously been neglected by Turkey’s narrow secular nationalism. However, Erdoğan’s increasingly nationalist rhetoric –– initially in order to replace some of the Kurdish votes that AKP lost to HDP in June — and the breakdown of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has put clear blue water between him and those AKP members and officials who feel that the party is abandoning its original, reforming mission.
If a split is not feasible, it is likely that the dissenters will criticize more vociferously from within AKP, perhaps rallying in greater numbers around senior figures like Arınç and the Kurdish ex-minister Hüseyin Çelik. Even as Erdoğan clamps down on the “parallel state” — alleged Gülenists operating within the media, judiciary and police –– a purge of a similar nature within AKP is as unlikely as an open division of the party. All sides are wedded, uncomfortably at times, by power.
How much of a headache this new dynamic of disloyalty will cause Erdoğan as he continues to pursue an executive Presidency is yet to be seen. It will likely be determined by how he and AKP’s different factions respond to the most pressing issues of the day –– most pressing of all, the escalating conflict in the Kurdish-majority Southeast.