Party old guard try to rein in Turkey’s Erdogan
Istanbul - After more than 13 years as leader of Turkey’s ruling party, prime minister and president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is used to having his own way. But, in a development that could split the party and undermine his power, some of Erdogan’s oldest and most respected comrades are publicly criticising the way he runs the country.
The old guard, which includes former president Abdullah Gul, several ex-ministers and other co-founders of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), is warning that Erdogan’s growing intolerance of dissent and his brash foreign policy is putting the party’s achievements of the last decade at risk. At the core of their criticism lies a perception that Turkish politics is becoming a one-man show.
Founded in 2001 by Erdogan, Gul and others, the AKP came to power one year later and has governed Turkey since. The first years of the party’s rule were marked by political reforms and a booming economy but the reform process has stalled, economic growth has slowed and foreign policy problems, including the conflict in neighbouring Syria, a crisis in relations with Russia and a row with the United States over the role of Syria’s Kurds, have been piling up.
In an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper, one of the AKP dissenters, former minister and party spokesman Huseyin Celik, said he and others felt excluded as Erdogan was becoming immune to constructive criticism.
“When we raised objections, we were left outside,” Celik said, adding that 98% of the AKP’s 50 most prominent members had been removed from positions of influence. “These people have been pushed out systematically.”
Celik stressed he and other dissidents were not after posts in the party or government but that they feared the course was lethal for the AKP. He said a deep polarisation, a foreign policy that was in shambles, economic problems, the revival of the Kurdish conflict and “paranoia” in dealing with suspected government foes were the biggest problems facing Turkey. The dissidents are also concerned about accusations of corruption in the AKP government.
Critics say Erdogan, 61, has surrounded himself with yes-men and sycophants and is less likely than ever to stomach dissenting views. Celik touched on that issue by reminding Erdogan in Hurriyet of the saying that “he who has good friends does not need a mirror”.
His interview marked a new stage in the public confrontation between Erdogan and his former political friends. Bulent Arinc, a fellow founding member of the AKP, former speaker of parliament and deputy prime minister, angered Erdogan by calling for a revival of the Kurdish peace process. Celik and others backed Arinc, triggering attacks from government media.
Gul, a former president, had a 3-hour meeting with Erdogan before meeting Arinc and other dissidents, in what news reports described as a warning to the president. Erdogan has remained the de facto AKP leader despite a constitutional clause obliging the president to stay out of party politics.
The respected opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet reported that the meeting between Gul and Erdogan did not go well and that “all ties snapped” between the two.
During their time in office, Gul and other AKP co-founders recognised Erdogan’s role as a leader but remained influential in the party. With those big guns sidelined, the AKP has become focused on Erdogan exclusively. Celik warned that development could ruin the party, despite the fact that the AKP collected almost 50% of the vote in November parliamentary elections.
He compared the AKP to a ship: “Your cabin might be very luxurious. If the ship starts taking water, you will go down in very luxurious surroundings but you will still go down.”
Some reports say the dissenters could be planning a new party and had rented office space in Ankara to house the new movement, amid speculation about names such as “New Democracy Party” or “Nation Party”.
However, signs are that the creation of a new party would be a last step by people who remain committed to the idea of the AKP as a party that combines Islamic and conservative values with a democratic and pluralist outlook, a commitment to EU membership and a strong market economy. Instead, the dissenters are trying to bring Erdogan, who has launched dozens of court cases against critics and has overseen growing pressure on media outlets critical of the government, back to a more moderate course.
Omer Sahin, a columnist at the Meydan newspaper, said there is a growing dissatisfaction within the AKP with the way things are going. “It’s not just a few AKP members who are unhappy with the situation,” he wrote. “For now”, Gul and the others were not thinking of setting up a new party but wanted to focus their efforts on balancing out Erdogan’s more extreme positions and on addressing the “climate of fear” they see in the country.
Although the risk for Erdogan of a formal split of the AKP looks remote, the challenge posed by the group around Gul could lead to political setbacks for the president.
Cumhuriyet reported there was widespread opposition within the AKP to Erdogan’s plan to change Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one.
The newspaper suggested that up to 100 members of the AKP’s parliamentary party could vote against a proposal for a referendum on the issue. Given that opposition parties in parliament also reject Erdogan’s plan, such a move by AKP lawmakers could kill the president’s project.