BACKGROUND: The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has had a history of reaching out to the broader center-right, of making room in its parliamentary group and in government for more secular conservatives and for Turkish nationalists. This strategy of coalition-building is, indeed, what principally distinguished the AKP from its Islamist predecessors, and which has sustained its claims to be a centrist force. This was also something that the AKP submitted in its defense during the closure case against it last year in the Constitutional Court. However, in reality, preference has always been given to electing people to the party organization and for posts in the bureaucracy from those with a background in the Islamic National Outlook (Milli Görus) movement or in other Islamic groups.
Those in the AKP who are not from an Islamist background have long been complaining of this fact, claiming that they were being marginalized in the party. On the other hand, while centrists were expressing disillusionment, party members from the National Outlook movement and with allegiances to other Islamic groups also voiced complaints in the same vein.
By definition, it has thus always been difficult for the AKP leadership to keep every group in the party coalition happy. However, the recent cabinet reshuffle suggests that the effort to sustain a balance seems to have been abandoned altogether. Among the nine new names (Bülent Arınç – Deputy Prime Minister, Ömer Dinçer – Minister of Labor and Social Security, Ahmet Davutoglu – Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nihat Ergün – Minister of Industry, Sadullah Ergin – Minister of Justice, Mustafa Demir – Minister of Public Works and Settlement, Cevdet Yılmaz – State Minister, Taner Yıldız – Minister of Energy, Selma Aliye Kavaf – State Minister), eight of the nine are issued from an Islamic background. Meanwhile, three of the eight ministers who were left out of the cabinet (Murat Baseskioglu, Sait Yazicioglu, and Kursat Tüzmen) had centrist orientations. This means that the new AKP government has a much more pronounced, Islamic conservative tilt than before.
IMPLICATIONS: From another perspective, however, the reshuffle has reestablished a balance at the leadership level of the AKP. Since the elections of 2007, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had more or less been running a one man show. Of the original founders of the AKP, Abdullah Gül had left his role – at least officially – as an AKP representative upon becoming president, a supposedly non-partisan position. Meanwhile, former speaker of parliament Bülent Arınç seemed to have been marginalized. Not having to share the public stage with anyone else of comparable stature to himself, Erdogan was unchecked and developed an increasingly authoritarian demeanor. The setback that the AKP suffered in the recent local elections indeed in part reflected a growing public discontent with the personal style of the prime minister.
The cabinet reshuffle has reset the balance, recalling that the AKP does in fact remain under the collective leadership of Gül, Erdoğan and Arınç. President Gül saw to it that Taner Yildiz, Ahmet Davutoglu, and Mustafa Demir, figures known to be close to him, were included in the cabinet; he was also instrumental in keeping Besir Atalay at the Interior Ministry. Ali Babacan, who is also close to Gül, was rewarded by being appointed as deputy prime minister responsible for economy.
The advancement of Babacan, who did not have a brilliant performance as foreign minister, to the post as the minister responsible for economics, is an important personal favor. By appointing persons who are close to him to the foreign ministry and to the supervision of the economy, and by preserving the Interior Ministry, President Abdullah Gül reasserted his power within the cabinet. In addition, the new Energy Minister is a former adviser to Gül, and the minister whom he replaced was close to Erdogan.
Erdogan has balanced these appointments by promoting Ömer Dinçer and Taner Yilmaz, who were his close collaborators at the undersecretariat of the Prime Ministry. Nihat Ergün, the former deputy chairman of the AKP parliamentary group, is also close to Erdogan.
Nimet Çubukçu, who was state minister responsible for women and family, replaced Hüseyin Çelik at the Ministry of Education. Çelik had been controversial, provoking discussions about secularism and making himself a target of accusations that the ministry was being staffed with religious conservatives. It can be assumed that Çubukçu, who is close to Erdogan, will leave untouched the bureaucracy that she inherits from her predecessor. As an unveiled woman, Çubukçu could provide an effective “cover” to the education bureaucracy, in which religious brotherhoods are highly influential.
Ahmet Davutoglu has been the intellectual architect and theorist of the AKP’s foreign policy. As foreign minister, he now assumes responsibility for that policy as well. There is growing apprehension that the tenet of the AKP’s foreign policy, that Turkey is to have zero problems its neighbors, seems to be overly focused on Muslim Middle Eastern countries, with less attention being paid to nurturing relations with Turkic countries. These criticisms will now be addressed at the person mainly responsible for the policy reorientation.
The comeback of Bülent Arınç, a leading conservative in the party, at a prominent post sends a signal to the conservative grassroots of the AKP that the party remains true to its origins. That that fact needs any reasserting indicates that there is some worry that the Felicity party, which challenges the AKP from a conservative position, could become a serious threat in the next election. Arınç will reassure conservative voters, but also risks repelling centrist AKP supporters.
CONCLUSIONS: With Arınç and four additional staunch conservative new ministers at his side, Erdogan could be aiming at recharging the original agenda of the AKP. The closure case against the party and the fact that a closure was barely avoided had politically immobilized the AKP, making it reluctant to propose bold changes, not least any constitutional reform.
The unfolding Ergenekon case, with continued revelations of coup plans and of intra-military bickering and intrigues, has put the military and the secularist-nationalist opposition to the AKP on the defensive. It may thus be that the AKP now feels less inhibited about asserting itself. Yet, more than anything else, the AKP leadership can be assumed to be animated by a desire to avoid further political descent. Prime Minister Erdogan was visibly shaken by the results of the recent local elections.
However, it is difficult to see how an AKP where the more secular center-right faction and Turkish nationalists have been marginalized could succeed in once again reaching out to a broader electorate, as the party did in the general elections of 2002 and 2007. If the increasing conservatism in party cadres is reflected in party discourse, which is very likely given the composition of the new cabinet, an increase in political tensions would be likely. Meanwhile, the religiously conservative reassertion of the AKP could be expected to give new impetus to the search for a new center-right alternative.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".