Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to maintain his dominance over his country’s politics are causing splits with his ruling AK Party. The struggle for control of the party now centers on who will decide which candidates it will run in June’s parliamentary election.
The outcome of that struggle could determine the fate not only of the AK Party, but of the country as a whole.
“Differences of opinion happen all the time.” That is how Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu tried to downplay an unprecedented public falling out between his deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc and Erdogan over who should run the country. While all three come from the same ruling AK Party, tensions at the top of the political pyramid appear to be on the rise.
Last month, the country’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan stepped down from his post in response to an invitation from the prime minister to run for parliament in June’s general election, but then changed his mind and returned to his post after Erdogan voiced strong disapproval of his decision.
Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said the issue about who will determine the AK Party’s list of candidates for parliament is increasing political tensions. “This controversy erupted only two weeks prior to the announcement of the candidates list. Every week we have a new development,” said Ozel.
“A month ago, when Fidan resigned, it looked like Davutoglu was going to do it,” he said. “When Fidan returned, it looked like Erdogan was going to do it. But there is obviously [a] big fight [over] who is going to draft the list. If it’s Erdogan’s list, Davutoglu will become even more of a figurehead, even if he wins the elections. Because he will not be able control the party caucus.”
The stakes could be equally high for Erdogan. While the constitution required him to sever all ties with the ruling AK Party, observers say he has made little secret of his desire to continue controlling the party.
Yuksel Taskin, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said the president views the ability to control the candidate list as a matter of political survival.
“For Erdogan, what matters is power. For as long he is planning to install very young and loyal people, some academics, secular converts, journalists also – his only concern is absolute loyalty,” said Taskin. “He fears to be overthrown by Byzantine conspiracies within the party. His fear: ‘If [I] lose some power, I may end up in prison.'”
Observers say even though Erdogan is no longer an AK Party member, he is widely seen as remaining its most important figure, with a powerful network of supporters within its ranks. Political scientist Taskin said Davutoglu lacks Erdogan’s standing in the party and charisma, and therefore is careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the president.
“Davutoglu is not ready to have an open confrontation, but here he is making some moves,” said Taskin. “The most important point for Davutoglu is to control the party and future MPs of [the] Turkish Grand National Assembly. That will be very crucial.”
Analysts say Davutoglu has been working hard to place his own supporters within the party and state ever since he became prime minister.
Aydintasbas said the outcome of the struggle over the candidate list could have far-reaching consequences. “If the list is drawn for Erdogan, we can be sure that AKP after the elections will push for what he wants – [an] executive presidency and new constitution, and Erdogan at the helm of the government. If you have Davutoglu and existing government draw the lists, it’s not [the] slam dunk that Erdogan desires,” he said.
Erdogan is touring the country on almost a daily basis, extolling the virtues of transforming Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, while Davutoglu remains silent on the issue.
So far, the two leaders have been careful not to be seen disagreeing publicly, but observers say the real battle is going on behind the scenes.
(Photo of Erdogan, left, and Davutoglu: Turkish presidency)