Old Friends Threaten Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Reign

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center).

Source MURAT CETINMUHURDAR / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Why you should care

Onetime allies in the Turkish president’s party are turning against him. 

When Ahmet Davutoglu was forced out as Turkey’s prime minister in May 2016, he pledged eternal loyalty to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath,” vowed Erdogan’s long-serving foot soldier, despite the well-known tensions between the two. “No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Fast-forward three years and the bookish, bespectacled academic has broken that silence to emerge as an outspoken critic of Erdogan’s government. On Sept. 13, Davutoglu resigned from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after being threatened with expulsion by the group he once chaired. The 60-year-old is one of several former ministers to have quit the party in recent months. And he is leading one of the two factions plotting to form their own movements to challenge Erdogan. The second is led by Ali Babacan, a 52-year-old former economy minister and deputy prime minister, who has the backing of another onetime Erdogan ally, former AKP President Abdullah Gül.

The veteran politicians are expected to officially launch new parties before the end of the year. Senior figures in both camps say they have been driven by growing alarm at what they see as Erdogan’s increasingly oppressive tactics toward opponents, his harsh nationalistic rhetoric, economic mismanagement, disregard for the rule of law and apparent unwillingness to listen to those urging him to change course.

The party lost its internal checks and balances. Now it’s just one man.

a former Turkish minister

“We thought maybe he would get the message,” says a senior AKP dissident. “But there were always excuses.…  ‘If we don’t do [something] now, we will regret it in the future.’”

The splintering is significant not only for the unprecedented break that it would represent in the AKP ranks but also for the potential damage it could inflict on Erdogan’s 17-year dominance of the national political stage.

In a country where the voting population can be roughly divided into pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks, even shaving a small chunk off the AKP alliance — which won 52.6 percent in last year’s presidential election — could radically alter the political landscape.

“Every vote they can collect can change the balance of power,” says Ibrahim Uslu, a Turkish pollster. “For that reason, these new parties are the most important dynamic in Turkish politics.”

 

At political rallies, Erdogan likes to recite the words of his favorite Turkish folk song. “We walked together, along these roads,” he tells the crowds. But few of the people who formed the party with Erdogan in 2001 are still by his side.

Former ministers say there were signs as long as a decade ago that the then prime minister was unwilling to listen to them and hostile to criticism. The trend accelerated, they say, as Erdogan faced a series of challenges threatening his leadership, including the mass protests that gripped the country in 2013, a corruption investigation later that year and the violent attempted coup of July 2016.

The rise of Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, who was last year placed in charge of the country’s economy, has been another key point of tension. 

Clashes between Albayrak’s faction and Davutoglu hastened the former prime minister’s departure. In recent years, the son-in-law has had run-ins with Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and, in a conflict that became public only last week, with Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül. 

The president’s control over the levers of state reached a zenith in 2018, when he took the helm of a system of governance that abolished the role of prime minister and concentrated power in his hands. His grip on the AKP has mirrored his control of the state.

“The party lost its internal checks and balances,” says one former minister who, for the time being, remains an AKP member. “Now it’s just one man.”

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It was the painful defeat in local elections that finally triggered Erdogan’s critics to act. For the first time since sweeping to power in 2002, the AKP lost control of the country’s biggest and most important cities in March, as voters punished it for a bruising economic downturn that followed a currency crisis last year. In Istanbul, a decision to force a rerun of a mayoral contest that was won by the opposition backfired disastrously as the electorate delivered a second, even resounding defeat for the AKP.

Davutoglu responded to the poll defeats by publishing a scathing 4,000-word critique of the AKP’s direction, warning that the party and the country could not be abandoned to a “narrow and self-seeking group who have become slaves to their ambition.”

Two months later, Babacan broke cover, resigning from the party that he helped found. “In recent years, deep differences have emerged between the policies pursued in a number of fields and my own principles, values and ideas,” he said.

Babacan and Davutoglu talk about the need to restore sound economic management, freedom of speech and the rule of law, and have suggested that they would like to find a way to restore the power of Parliament.

Gettyimages 471327054

Former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan.

Source Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Yet the two men are targeting different audiences. Davutoglu is “trying to appeal to the most conservative sections of the population,” says Ayse Ayata, a professor of political science at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. Babacan’s faction, by contrast, is appealing to a “globalized AKP” or the “bourgeoisie,” Ayata says. “It’s two different styles and two different sections of the population.”

Babacan is eager for his new party not to be seen as a collection of disgruntled former AKP figures. In a recent interview with the opposition newspaper Karar, he said that he wanted to recruit a talented team made up of “many different voices and different segments” of Turkish society. He has resisted overtures from Davutoglu for the two men to work together.

Analysts see Babacan, who left government in 2015, as the candidate with the better prospect of success. After last year’s almost 30 percent fall in the lira against the dollar, many families have been confronted with high inflation and unemployment as Turkey entered its first recession in a decade. The former economy minister is seen as a steward of the good times in the country. Davutoglu, by contrast, is widely associated with Turkey’s interventionist approach to the war in Syria, and the millions of refugees who have subsequently fled to Turkey.

“Their time in government works in favor of Babacan but against Davutoglu,” says Can Selcuki of Istanbul Economics Research.

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The odd thing about the urgent push by both groups to launch in the coming months is that, in theory, there are no elections in Turkey until 2023. Yet, in a country that has had 14 elections or referendums over the past 12 years, some find it hard to believe that it will be four years until the next one.

Efforts to revive growth by turning on the supply of credit are seen by some as a signal that Erdogan could call an early vote, but many economists believe the Turkish president will struggle to match the fast-paced growth that powered previous AKP electoral victories. A wild card is Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the ultranationalist MHP that has supported the AKP government for the past three years. Bahçeli has previous experience in collapsing governments, a key factor in Babacan’s decision to launch now, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Many analysts are skeptical that either of the breakaway figures could win a presidential contest. Their vagueness over strategy and political aims has sparked a string of unanswered questions: Do they aim to join the alliance of opposition parties that has coalesced in recent years? Would they support an umbrella candidate for president, such as Ekrem Imamoglu, the new Istanbul mayor? Could they team up behind a joint opposition pledge to restore the old parliamentary system?

Despite the questions, Erdogan supporters view the rebellions as a threat. “If Babacan gets 10 percent, we will get 35 percent and Imamoglu will become president,” says an AKP official. “People in the party need to stop complaining.”

Onur Erim, a former AKP adviser who retains close ties to the ruling party, says that neither Babacan nor Davutoglu can compete with the charisma of the Turkish president, who — despite everything — still has millions of adoring supporters. “They may be fine technocrats,” Erim says, “but I don’t think these guys can move crowds.”

That view is echoed by Alan Makovsky, a Turkey expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. “I don’t see either of them really registering,” he says.

The political climate also makes many people think twice about openly criticizing Erdogan. Selim Temurci, a former AKP Istanbul chairman who resigned alongside Davutoglu, says that fear is a significant constraint. “Many are afraid,” he says.

Erdogan himself has swung between dismissing the prospects of new parties and threatening them. At a meeting of party officials in July, he did both at once. “We’ve seen many people break away from us and form new parties. If I ask you about them now, you won’t even be able to remember their names,” he said. “Those who take part in this kind of treachery will pay a heavy price.”

The 65-year-old president has often emerged from tight spots by being pragmatic and flexible. Some analysts suspect he may even seek to change the system brought in last year that requires a presidential candidate to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to win. That could make it easier for him to secure another term.

But some of the AKP discontents are convinced that, given his strained ties with the West, the struggling economy and now a fraying party, Erdogan has run out of road. They believe that, after almost two decades, many people will be surprised by how quickly the AKP could unravel.

“There are lots of perceived loyalists,” says the senior AKP dissident. “But these are not loyalists. They are just there because [Erdogan] is in power. When he loses power he’s going to be very lonely. I don’t think he realizes that.”

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By Laura Pitel

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