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Erdogan’s elevation is only the start of Turkey’s power struggle

With the prime minister becoming president, the jostling for positions of influence among his own party has begun, writes Piotr Zalewski.
Andre da Loba for The National
Andre da Loba for The National

weekend eye

It did not take long for the knives to come out. On August 10, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister since 2003, won just under 52 per cent of the vote in the country’s first ­directly contested presidential election, enough to avoid a run-off. Mr Erdogan will be sworn in on August 28. His term, quite possibly the first of two, will last five years.

With Mr Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) having waited until the last minute to anoint a new prime minister, and with many AKP luminaries positioning themselves ahead of next year’s parliamentary election, an upheaval inside the party was always a matter of time. Few expected it to arrive so soon.

Only a day after Mr Erdogan’s election victory, Abdullah Gul, the country’s president since 2007, reneged on a previous statement and announced that he was planning a return to active politics and to the party he helped found, the AKP. He was immediately snubbed.

Hours after the outgoing president’s remarks, Huseyin Celik, the ruling party’s spokesperson, announced that the AKP would hold an extraordinary convention, presumably in order to name a new leader and confirm Mr Erdogan’s successor as prime minister, on August 27, one day before Mr Gul’s departure from office. Had the AKP scheduled the congress a few days later, it would have been possible for Mr Gul to attend and rejoin the party immediately. As it stands – given that he will still be president when the congress takes place – Mr Gul will be unable to do so.

A number of AKP figures publicly opposed Mr Gul’s comeback, signalling that the outgoing president, who has a history of disagreements with Mr Erdogan, notably over the latter’s handling of last year’s antigovernment protests, might sow divisions within the party. Mr Gul’s remarks, one AKP parliamentarian tweeted, “take the mind prisoner and lay ambition bare to the eye”.

Mr Erdogan said, however, that Mr Gul was welcome to come back. “There is nothing more natural than for Abdullah Bey to return to his, to our party,” he said at Mr Gul’s farewell reception on August 12, warning observers not to attach any significance to the timing of the upcoming congress.

Mr Gul’s pending return only adds to the existing speculation surrounding the AKP’s midterm future.

On Thursday, the AKP’s top decision-making committee nominated Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to succeed Mr Erdogan as party leader and prime minister.

Mr Davutoglu, who will officially be confirmed at the party’s congress next week, appears to be just what Mr Erdogan ordered: a relatively pliant successor who appears ready to defer to the new president on major policy issues. Mr Erdogan has brooked no dissent within the AKP, especially over the past few years. He appears to have no intention of loosening the reins after he takes over as president, even though he is officially expected to sever his links with the party.

Mr Davutoglu’s appointment is still a gamble, however. Loyal as he may be, Mr Davutoglu may turn into a major liability for the party ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. His foreign policy, once heralded at home and abroad, is increasingly seen by Turks as a flop. Already, there is mounting speculation that without Mr Erdogan’s leadership and campaigning skills the AKP may lose some share of the vote, if not fracture.

A below-par performance in the upcoming elections would put the AKP’s new leader, and the party itself, under huge pressure. It would also derail the course of Mr Erdogan’s presidency.

For the time being, Mr Erdogan intends to deploy all the powers vested in his new office by the constitution, something none of his predecessors has done. He will have the power to chair cabinet meetings, veto laws, call early elections, and to appoint the head of the general staff, members of the board of higher education, rectors of state universities and members of the Constitutional Court. On top of that, if pro-government sources are to be believed, he will enjoy the company of 400 advisers and a committee of 10 to 15 “wise men”, a possible indication that he intends to build his very own cabinet inside his presidency.

To fully transform his office into the seat of executive power and to fend off any potential rivals in government, however, Mr Erdogan will need constitutional changes. The path to such changes will be clear only if the AKP and its political allies secure the necessary majority in parliament. It would take 330 votes out of a possible 550 to bring a new constitution to a referendum. With 367 votes, the AKP would be able to push the new charter through parliament without taking it to a popular vote.

Without such a majority, and without a new constitution, Mr Erdogan’s position may become vulnerable. In the short run, he may be able to rule Turkey de facto. In the long run, he will need to rule de jure.

The challenge to Mr Erdogan and to the AKP’s unity may come from a number of places. It may come from the bureaucracy; it may come from Mr Erdogan’s own successor as prime minister. “Even a man with no aspirations whatsoever could acquire them,” says one analyst. Especially if the AKP stumbles in the 2015 elections, it may come from Mr Gul.

Finally, it may come from the graduating class of AKP parliamentarians. Earlier this year, the ruling party upheld rules that compel members to serve no more than three terms in parliament. As a result, about 70 deputies, including deputy prime ministers Bulent Arinc, Besir Atalay, Bekir Bozdag and Ali Babacan, as well as a host of other cabinet ministers, may find themselves ineligible to run in the upcoming elections.

Many of them may find their way into Mr Erdogan’s cabinet. A few might head to the private sector. Others, however, having no inclination to leave politics, may decide not to go quietly.

For now, Mr Erodgan’s position atop the AKP food chain, and Turkish politics as a whole, remains uncontested, if only because no one inside his party comes close to him as a campaigner and speaker. Down the line, however, the Erdogan presidency may turn out to be only as strong as the foundations on which it is built.

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer living in Istanbul

On Twitter: p_zalewski

Updated: August 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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