No, an internal rebellion within the AKP is not imminent

The AKP is likely to bet on Abdullah Gul and Ali Babacan, if they dare challenge Erdogan. Their strategy is to wait until the crisis becomes too much for Erdogan to bear.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Dim prospects. Members of Turkey’s ruling AKP party wait for the arrival of Binali Yildirim, Istanbul AKP mayoral candidate, at a market in Istanbul, June 11. (AP)
Dim prospects. Members of Turkey’s ruling AKP party wait for the arrival of Binali Yildirim, Istanbul AKP mayoral candidate, at a market in Istanbul, June 11. (AP)

No matter the outcome of the Istanbul election rerun June 23, there is no way Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerges victorious.

This is a good thing for Turkey. Erdogan’s loss would dim the prospects of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and spark serious discussion about the country’s future.

But how will Turkey’s political landscape reconfigure after this historic period?

Turkey’s municipal elections March 31 rocked Erdogan and the AKP like an earthquake. There were major tectonic shifts in six major cities, including Ankara and Mersin, where the opposition gained political power. In each of these cases, Kurdish voters played a major role in shifting the levers of power.

The real shock, of course, was the AKP’s loss of Istanbul, the country’s financial hub that has been Erdogan’s home turf since he rose to prominence nearly a quarter century ago.

Opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was elected mayor of the city of 15 million but his victory was short-lived. Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) annulled the election results and removed Imamoglu from office. They made their ruling, they said, after determining that some presiding officers and polling staff members were not civil servants.

In the eyes of the opposition, even among key power circles, the elected mayor had his victory snatched, which only added to his image as a rising star.

Emboldened by this perception, Imamoglu has fallen into rhetorical traps, commenting on major issues that fall beyond the scope of his original platform, such as the dispute with Cyprus. Still, the opposition’s anger and hunger for victory is so powerful that he has maintained enough support to secure another victory.

So, why was Erdogan so intent not to let go of Istanbul when Imamoglu’s victory was so clear?

A few days after the AKP’s loss, the party disputed the results and fired off a barrage of objections, disseminated by the powerful pro-government media, bombarding the public with fake news.

It became clear there was a campaign aimed at cornering the YSK, which cracked under the pressure. It is widely assumed that Erdogan will do whatever he can to keep hold of Istanbul.

The explanation is multilayered but also simple. Erdogan understands that Istanbul is symbolically key. Losing the metropolis would signal the beginning of the end of his reign and quest for absolute power. It would go against the legend of his invincibility.

Istanbul is also important given the Turkish president’s inability to control other parts of the country, such as the western coast and the Kurdish provinces in the south-east. As such, the continuity of political power in Ankara and consolidation of financial and media power in Istanbul mean a lot for his image.

Istanbul, most importantly, is a financial powerhouse, accounting for nearly half of Turkey’s economy and trade. This is why most of Erdogan’s prized megaprojects, such as the bridge across and tunnel under the Bosporus, the huge airport and much-talked-about Canal Istanbul — not to mention the tens of shopping centres and construction site — are in the city.

The opposition accused Erdogan of engaging in corruption in carrying out the projects. To them, big-money projects are prime examples of how Erdogan and those close to him routinely engage in thievery, looting and nepotism.

Imamoglu honed in on this issue. As soon as he won the election for mayor, the opposition figure indicated he would do all he could to reveal to the public all files stocked in the municipality and other documents he believed needed attention and scrutiny. In a matter of 36 hours, a local court blocked his inspection team from accessing the records.

What was at stake, it seems, was the lack of transparency in the public tenders processes and, more generally, the hidden methods through which Istanbul has for long been governed. If brought to light, these truths could expose serious abuses of power, potentially leading to Erdogan’s downfall. Understanding this, could Erdogan really afford to let go of Istanbul?

This question tells us how important the June 23 election is. Not only will it decide who rules the critical city, it will serve as a referendum of sorts on public morality and the future of the entire country.

The opposition is closely following how Erdogan’s camp, which is represented by reluctant candidate Binali Yildirim, will react to their projected loss. If they admit defeat, will internal rebellion break loose in the AKP?

Some circles in the party are waiting for that moment. For them, Erdogan is too erratic and detached from reality. He is also, they say, surrounded by sycophants who don’t represent the AKP anymore. Erdogan is regarded as a stumbling block on certain key policy areas, such as the economy, rule of law and foreign policy. All of this makes him a liability for the bureaucracy.

Still, however, Erdogan is far too powerful to challenge from within.

One challenger who has set himself out is former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu but he is seen as too ambitious for his level of competence and unrealistic worldview. Apart from being detested by the Kurds for the destruction and killings that took place during his reign, Davutoglu is internationally regarded as responsible for dragging Turkey into the regional quagmire. The party he is keen to launch is likely doomed from the start.

The AKP, meanwhile, is likely to bet on Abdullah Gul and Ali Babacan, if they dare challenge Erdogan. Their strategy is to wait until the crisis becomes too much for Erdogan to bear.

More will be clear after the summer and we will see what becomes of Turkey’s historic systemic crisis.

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