Row in Turkey’s governing party bursts into the open

Davutoglu severely criticised limits on the freedom of speech in Turkey, a country that has jailed more than 130 journalists, more than any other nation, in recent years.
Sunday 28/04/2019
A file picture shows Ahmet Davutoglu leaving after a news conference at the headquarters of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara. 					      (AP)
Better late than never. A file picture shows Ahmet Davutoglu leaving after a news conference at the headquarters of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara. (AP)

Istanbul - Just three weeks after he lost control of the biggest cities in the country in local elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing unrest in his own party.

A brewing row over the direction of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), an organisation that has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years and has become a tool for the president’s ambition, burst into the open with the publication of a manifesto by Erdogan’s former prime minister.

Ahmet Davutoglu, who was sacked by Erdogan in 2016 as AKP chief and prime minister and is reportedly mulling a plan to set up his own party, published a 4,000-word pamphlet on Facebook that criticised the AKP for having moved away from democracy, pluralism and the rule of law.

In a serious blow to Erdogan, the AKP lost control of the capital, Ankara, and Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the March 31 elections. The AKP and its Islamist predecessors had governed the two cities for 25 years.

Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Commission rejected an appeal by the AKP that votes cast by sacked public sector workers be declared invalid. The commission has still to decide on an AKP application to schedule a rerun election in Istanbul in June over alleged irregularities. Some in the AKP have called on the party to accept its defeat in the metropolis and move on.

“The election results show that alliance politics have caused harm to our party, both in terms of voter levels and the party’s identity,” Davutoglu wrote in reference to the AKP’s partnership with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He added the AKP’s original reformist and liberal ethos had been replaced in recent years by a more statist, security-based approach that was driven by concerns about preserving the status quo.

Davutoglu severely criticised limits on the freedom of speech in Turkey, a country that has jailed more than 130 journalists, more than any other nation, in recent years. “The media, a foundation for free speech and criticism that is called the fourth power in developed democracies, has been turned into a propaganda instrument,” he wrote.

The manifesto followed a statement by former Turkish President Abdullah Gul, another disgruntled AKP grandee, who accused Erdogan of having become an autocrat. Critics accuse Erdogan of polarising the country and of branding all political foes potential traitors.

Davutoglu’s broadside came as AKP officials questioned Erdogan’s decisions that, critics said, have damaged the party. Internal criticism directed against Erdogan, revered by millions of Turks, had been rare in the AKP but is becoming more common.

Party members said the AKP has become a political hostage to the MHP, the BirGun newspaper reported. The AKP relies on the MHP’s support in parliament, where Erdogan’s group lost its majority in elections last year. The two parties forged an alliance but the much bigger AKP has come under pressure from the MHP, BirGun quoted AKP members as saying. The MHP “is turning us into lame ducks,” they said.

Sezgin Tanrikulu, a CHP lawmaker, said a power struggle was raging inside the AKP.

“There are those who want even more polarisation and those who want normalisation,” Tanrikulu said by telephone. “We don’t know who will win in the end.”

The AKP is reeling from the defeats in Istanbul and elsewhere. Pollsters said many voters in urban centres turned away from the ruling party amid an economic downturn that pushed unemployment to 15%, the highest level in years.

Following the election, Erdogan called on Turks to unite and face the country’s problems but his decision to challenge the AKP defeat in Istanbul before the electoral commission kept Turkey on edge.

Heightened political tensions turned violent April 21 when CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was attacked by a nationalist mob while attending the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed in clashes between the army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the international community.

One protester, allegedly an AKP member, punched Kilicdaroglu in the face as bodyguards tried to shield the CHP leader and take him to a nearby house for shelter. “Burn down this house,” the crowd chanted after Kilicdaroglu went inside. He was eventually taken away in an armoured car.

Tanrikulu said the attack was a consequence of Erdogan’s divisive rhetoric before the elections. On the campaign trail, Erdogan accused the CHP of working with “terrorists” because it attracted support of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), seen by the government as the PKK’s political arm. Kilicdaroglu’s attacker reportedly told police his action had been influenced by statements calling the CHP leader a PKK supporter.

“They say we were cooperating with terrorists. They spread hate speech,” Tanrikulu said about the government, “and now the AKP wants to portray our electoral victories as illegitimate.”

Erdogan appeared to justify the assault against Kilicdaroglu by repeating the charge that some political parties in Turkey were hand in hand with the PKK. The president left a session of parliament early as HDP co-leader Pervin Buldan was to give a speech. Erdogan said he was not prepared to listen to those who were responsible for the death of Turkish soldiers.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli suggested that Kilicdaroglu was responsible for the violence he suffered. “What did you do that led this man to hit you, Kemal Kilicdaroglu?” Bahceli asked, adding it was time the CHP leader went “on holiday.”

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