Cracks appear in Erdogan’s ruling party ahead of elections

Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York, said Erdogan’s towering position in the AKP meant there was little room for competing groups.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and his son Bilal Erdogan during Istanbul Youth Festival, last May. (AFP)
A family at the helm. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and his son Bilal Erdogan during Istanbul Youth Festival, last May. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Cracks are appearing in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of local elections in March that will test the government’s ability to motivate its base despite economic problems.

In remarks seen by the pro-Erdogan newspaper Sabah as a swipe at an “opposition bloc” in the AKP, Erdogan said not everybody was happy with his plan to forge an alliance with a nationalist party for the elections. “You know, some people won’t leave it alone,” Erdogan said.

The statement came as opposition officials and newspapers said competing groups were active in the AKP. They said at least three rival camps, two of which are led by a son and a son-in law of the president, were emerging in the AKP, a party that has been dominated by Erdogan since it was founded in 2001.

The aim of the AKP in the local polls is to hold on to control of big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara despite an annual inflation of more than 20%, unemployment of more than 11% and foreign exchange turbulence that shaved nearly 30% off the value of the Turkish lira against the US dollar this year.

Rumours of internal differences in the AKP have appeared before without resulting in serious challenges for Erdogan but the latest reports gained credibility because of Erdogan’s remarks. A senior AKP official warned of politicians out to build their own careers by benefiting from Erdogan’s popularity.

Huseyin Gulerce, a columnist for the pro-government Star newspaper and a staunch Erdogan supporter, accused some AKP co-founders of causing “trouble,” in a reference to former President Abdullah Gul, whose political differences with Erdogan are well known.

Internal divisions upended the AKP’s plan to announce its candidate for mayor of Istanbul in the March 31 elections. Erdogan has announced his party’s candidates for mayoral posts around the country but the Istanbul slot remains officially vacant. Erdogan’s remarks suggest that some in the AKP are opposed to his plan to cooperate with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party in the election.

Observers say Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and a loyal Erdogan supporter who is speaker of parliament, will get the job. Yildirim, however, has resisted an official announcement because he reportedly was angered by interference from Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in law and finance minister, reports said.

Baris Yarkadas, a politician of the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party said Yildirim was also irked because Erdogan’s son Bilal Erdogan, 37, was seen to be preparing a campaign to become Istanbul mayor himself in the coming years. The official presentation of Yildirim as the AKP’s candidate is expected this month.

The opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet reported that Albayrak and Bilal Erdogan were leaders of two competing groups within the AKP. The “Beratcilar” — followers of Berat Albayrak — were competing with the “Bilalciler” — supporters of Bilal Erdogan — and the “Soylucular,” led by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, Cumhuriyet said.

“This is damaging the party,” Cumhuriyet quoted unnamed AKP officials as saying. The daily said the three camps had started competing efforts to pick AKP candidates for municipal assemblies to widen their influence within the party.

The AKP did not comment but Soylu responded by tweeting that Cumhuriyet had a “seditious mentality.” Tensions between him and Albayrak have been an open secret in Ankara.

Speaking about the candidate selection for the March election, AKP Vice-Chairman Numan Kurtulmus said the party was looking for politicians who could deliver for the voters but not for candidates who were “trying to get ahead on the coat tails of our president’s charisma.”

Selim Sazak, a US-based Turkey analyst, said Soylu, as well as Albayrak and Bilal Erdogan, were “definitely angling to establish themselves as the guy after [President] Erdogan.”

Responding to written questions, Sazak added that the AKP could break apart. Some officials in the party were “praying for the day it will crack open so that they could go set up their own small thing, which they’ll lead,” he said.

In the first years of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power was checked by influential co-founders such as former President Abdullah Gul or former parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc. Erdogan, however, pushed out his former colleagues.

Under a presidential system of government that went into force after elections last June, Erdogan widened his power, abolishing the post of prime minister, side-lining parliament and making Albayrak a key figure in Ankara. The development has given family members like Albayrak, Bilal Erdogan or Erdogan’s younger daughter Sumeyye more influence on policies because of their direct access to the president.

Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, said Erdogan had “centred all the real power on his own family.” Erdogan, 64, is relatively young and could be expected to govern another decade or longer, Eissenstat wrote in response to questions. “I don’t give much credence to the idea of ‘post-Erdogan positioning,’” he said.

Eissenstat said Erdogan’s towering position in the AKP meant there was little room for competing groups. “There are factions in the security services that might be a real cause for concern but I don’t see factionalism within the party unless his health changes or the economy goes into real and sustained crisis,” he said.

Ahmet Hakan, a columnist at the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper, dismissed the reports about competing camps within the AKP as wishful thinking of an opposition frustrated with its own inability to beat Erdogan at the ballot box.

“This has been the dream of the opposition for 17 years,” Hakan wrote in reference to the reports about splits within the ruling party.