Erdogan Faces Growing Threat From Within His Own Party

Dozens of senior members of the president's AKP party may join disgruntled politicians and set up a new party. And he is already on the attack

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters at a ceremony marking the third anniversary of the attempted coup at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, July 15, 2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, July 15. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s remarks in an interview last week show that Erdogan tried to control him.Credit: Murad Sezer/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Act like a prime minister, but do not use your powers, do not even appoint the provincial heads of your own party,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, according to an interview Davutoglu gave last week to the Voice of Russia. A subsidiary of the Russian media network Sputnik, the radio station is funded by Moscow and broadcasts in Turkish and other languages.

Immediately after the three-hour interview on July 18, the Turkish journalists who had conducted it were surprised when they were told not to broadcast it. Russia evidently takes good care of those who demonstrate loyalty to it. Thus, criticism of Erdogan – who “laid himself on the line” to buy the S-400 antimissile system – apparently has no place in the Russian media.

But Davutoglu, who was Erdogan’s shadow while serving as his senior adviser on foreign policy, has had a bellyful of his former boss. His frustration exploded with a bang in April, when the former premier published a 50-page manifesto on his Facebook page, detailing the president’s mistakes and the failures of his Justice and Development Party, popularly known as the AKP.

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“The party’s liberal platform has been replaced with a statist, security-oriented approach,” wrote Davutoglu, who also served as foreign minister. “I wouldn’t agree either to remain quietly in the party or to leave it quietly.”

Supporters wait for Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu at the Istanbul Ataturk airport, November 3, 2015.Credit: Ozan Kose/AFP

The loyal foreign minister and later premier – the man credited with negotiating the refugee agreement Turkey signed with the European Union and who coined the slogan “zero problems with neighbors” as his country's guiding diplomatic principle – found himself out of the government in 2016. Today he is debating over whether he should leave the party he grew up in or remain and try to change it from within despite the slim chances of succeeding.

But two other former office-holders haven’t shown such hesitation: Ali Babacan, the former deputy prime minister, considered the architect of Turkey’s economic policy; and Abdullah Gul, one of the founders of the AKP, who was once a close friend of Erdogan’s and served as Turkey’s president prior to the 2014 election. Deep political and ideological rifts have developed between these two and Erdogan, which climaxed when the latter didn’t appoint Babacan to a cabinet post in his new government.

This month, Babacan announced his resignation from the AKP, his political home. “We need a new vision and a new political movement,” he said in a terse press statement, adding that Turkey “has moved from a flawed parliamentary system to a flawed presidential system.”

Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul leaves a memorial service for the victims of the thwarted coup in Istanbul, Turkey, July 17, 2016.Credit: Kemal Aslan/Reuters

People close to all three disgruntled politicians say that dozens of other senior AKP members are considering quitting the party and joining a new party that they plan to set up. The question is, however, how much support they will get from the public.

Whatever develops, Erdogan is already going on the attack. In a press statement, he warned that Babacan does not "have the right to break up the ummah.” By using the Islamic term for “nation,” he implied that Babacan was violating the fundamental principles of Islam, which explicitly forbid civil war.

A civil war between allies?

Apropos civil war, it appears that one is already heating up between the three former senior officials who have broken off from Erdogan. Babacan and Gul haven’t rushed to embrace Davutoglu, whom they and many others still see as Erdogan’s minion despite his criticism of his former boss.

The dispute between them dates back to 2014, when Erdogan was elected president. At that point, the AKP had to choose both a new chairman and a new prime minister. Gul and Davutoglu both wanted the latter post, and most party members backed Gul. But Erdogan nevertheless appointed Davutoglu, because he realized Gul would likely try to block constitutional changes that would give the president far-ranging powers.

Davutoglu recently said that had he known Gul wanted to be prime minister, he would have bowed out of the race. But the bad blood between them has developed into an open rift.

For their part, Gul and his allies have charged that by accepting the prime minister’s job, Davutoglu handed Erdogan the reins of absolute power and destroyed any chance of protecting democratic values from his assault. Indeed, Davutoglu’s remarks in the Voice of Russia interview in fact show that Erdogan controlled his prime minister and curtailed his powers.

Hakan Fidan (center) attends funeral ceremony of a Turkish diplomat killed in Iraq, Ankara, July 18, 2019.Credit: STR/AFP

Turkey’s national intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, has also emerged from behind the scenes. Fidan, seen as an omniscient strongman, declared his intention to enter politics in the past. In 2015, he even sought to run for parliament, but Erdogan pressured him to relent and to resume his job as intelligence chief, with broad powers and a huge budget.

Fidan acceded to this request, and has become Ankara's most influential player in both military and diplomatic affairs. His problem is that he’s considered to be close to Gul, and as such, Erdogan is naturally suspicious of him.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are slated to take place in the country only in 2023. Much could happen until then – in both the economic and diplomatic realms. Erdogan will try to prove that Babacan, who supports raising interest rates to curb inflation, is wrong, and that lowering interest rates will actually spur growth. He is also positioning Turkey as a regional power that doesn’t bow to international pressure.

Above all, Erdogan must restore the public’s faith in him following the defeat of his candidate in Istanbul’s recent mayoral election. But with the next elections four years hence, those of his rivals who have left the AKP will also have plenty of time to woo the public and to present an alternative to the party’s 16 years in power.

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