Knives are out in ‘war’ between Erdogan and AKP rivals
ISTANBUL - The knives are out in a bitter confrontation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and dissidents from his ruling parties who are setting up their own organisations to challenge him.
“The war has begun,” said journalist Rusen Cakir, an expert on Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002.
An economic downturn that has pushed up unemployment and weakened the Turkish Lira, accusations of corruption and a slide towards authoritarianism have eroded the AKP’s once ironclad popularity and unity. Erdogan, 65, and in power since 2003, remains the country’s most popular politician, but his party no longer commands its own majority in parliament.
His challengers are Ahmet Davutoglu, 60, a former Turkish Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, and Ali Babacan, 52, who served as Economic Minister, Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister before leaving the government in 2015. Both have split from the AKP to set up their own parties.
Davutoglu presented his new Party of the Future on Friday, pledging a democratic society, a free press, an independent judiciary as well as a return to a parliamentary system of government. Parliament’s role has been greatly diminished since the 2017 introduction of a presidential system that gives wide-ranging powers to Erdogan.
Davutoglu said his party would repair Turkey’s strained ties with the US, NATO and the EU but also strengthen relations with Russia and China. Turkey would play a “leading and visionary role in bringing lasting stability and peace to neighbouring regions like the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East”, he said.
The former prime minister is known as the architect of a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy that defines Turkey as an independent power. His new party has chosen the green leaf of the plane tree as its logo. The plane tree is seen as an Ottoman symbol of greatness, while green is the colour of Islam.
Davutoglu’s party was officially announced in the same Ankara hotel where Erdogan presented the AKP after its founding in 2001. Like Davutoglu himself, many of the 154 founding members of the new party are former AKP officials.
While Davutoglu is aiming for a religiously conservative outlook, Babacan, who has said he will present his own new party before the end of the year, is going for a more liberal vision.
Opinion polls differ wildly about how strong the new parties are likely to be, with estimates ranging between a mere 2 per cent and 10 per cent each. But even if the new formations remain below the 10 per cent threshold that parties in Turkey need to enter parliament at elections, they could cost the AKP precious support and reduce the number of the ruling party’s lawmakers, currently standing at 290 in the 600 seat assembly in Ankara. Media reports say several AKP members of parliament are preparing to leave the party and side with either Davutoglu or Babacan.
Such a development could make it harder for Erdogan and the AKP to push their agenda. They currently command a majority of 339 seats in parliament, thanks to his right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But if more than 50 AKP lawmakers join one of the new parties, the AKP and the MHP lose their majority.
News reports said Erdogan sent AKP emissaries to Davutoglu and Babacan in a last-ditch effort to prevent the formation of the new parties but the attempt failed. As a result, the president went on the offensive.
In a speech on Dec 8, Erdogan attacked both Davutoglu and Babacan, accusing them of defrauding the Turkish state bank Halkbank. Davutoglu shot back by calling for an independent investigation into the private wealth of all incumbent and former presidents, prime ministers as well as close members of their families. “He was aiming at Erdogan,” Cakir, speaking on the Internet television channel Medyascope, said about Davutoglu. Babacan did not respond to Erdogan’s charges.
Corruption and nepotism have become major issues in Turkey as the economy fails to provide enough jobs. Unemployment stands at 14 per cent, with almost double that figure among young people. The AKP lost power in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara in municipal elections this year.
Opposition politicians who have taken over city halls have started to unveil what they call major cases of corruption from the preceding AKP era. Examples included public contracts allegedly given to AKP followers. In Istanbul, the new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu displayed hundreds of cars that he said the former city administration had leased and handed to AKP supporters for their private use.
With the next regular elections scheduled for 2023, Davutoglu and Babacan will have enough time to build up their organisations in all parts of the country.
Yildiray Ogur, a columnist at the newspaper Karar, which is close to Davutoglu, said he doubted that Erdogan would opt for early elections to make it harder for his rivals to rally their troops against him.
Poll figures for the AKP “have not reached a satisfactory level for the government following the [losses at the] municipal elections,” he said in an interview. “The AKP hasn’t fixed the economy. People are very unhappy about this.” Erdogan was unlikely to risk an election in that unfavourable atmosphere. “It is more important to stay in power.”