BACKGROUND: On February 10, Hakan Fidan resigned as the Undersecretary of the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MİT) to enter active politics for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Fidan announced that he was going to seek to be elected to parliament in the upcoming general election on June 7. Rumors had it that he was thereafter going to become a cabinet member; the rumors pointed to Fidan becoming foreign minister. However, Fidan quickly ran into opposition. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was furious, and publicly admonished Fidan for quitting his job after serving years as his right-hand man and as the “holders of his secrets.”
And Erdoğan finally, and not unexpectedly, had his way: after having been confronted with the furor of the president to his decision to quit his strategic position, Turkey’s former intelligence chief on March 9 withdrew his application to the ruling party to run for parliament. The news about Fidan’s withdrawal from parliamentary candidacy was followed by his immediate re-appointment, after only thirty days, to head MİT. Fidan’s decision was announced to the public through the Anatolia Agency on March 9 during a second cabinet meeting chaired by Erdoğan. “As of today, I have withdrawn my application for the parliamentary elections, as I deem necessary. I will be exerting all efforts in order to properly fulfill all duties consigned to me in the way of serving to my country and to my people. On this occasion, I want to express my gratitude and my respects to our president, our prime minister and our people for their support and trust,” Fidan said in a statement to the Anatolia Agency.
The row over Hakan Fidan is suggestive of shifting power realities and rivalries within the AKP regime. When Erdoğan became Turkey’s first popularly elected president in August 2014, a new era began in Turkish politics. Erdoğan had all along made it clear that he was going to be a different president, exercising full control over the affairs of government. What Erdoğan assumed was that he was going to supersede the government, effectively running the country directly from his new presidential palace, relying on a group of young advisors. The developments since August 2014 have demonstrated that the power game in Ankara is not at all playing out the way that Erdoğan had hoped and assumed that it would.
The Turkish system is parliamentarian, with power unequivocally residing in the executive led by the prime minister. What Erdoğan is now realizing is that this power – which he himself held for more than eleven years – is inexorably escaping his control. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to former prime ministers Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel when they ascended to the presidency in 1989 and 1993 respectively; however, it was always assumed conventionally that Erdoğan was going to be the exception to this old rule. Instead, history is repeating itself.
During Ahmet Davutoğlu’s short tenure so far as prime minister, the rivalry between the cliques around him and Erdoğan has clearly surfaced. Hakan Fidan’s resignation from MIT and his announcement that he was going to enter politics made the crack within the AKP visible for all to see. Even though Fidan very much owes his bureaucratic career to having enjoyed Erdoğan’s confidence and support, he is also known to be close to the young clique around Davutoğlu. It is an open secret in Ankara that Fidan, if he had been elected to parliament, would have been appointed foreign minister by Davutoğlu.
However, this was a prospect that displeased Erdoğan. The president made clear that he was the one who had appointed Fidan to head MİT, and that the latter’s job at the National Intelligence Agency was not yet done. In fact, Erdoğan did have reasons to be displeased.
Indeed, there was no suitable candidate that could have replaced Fidan, and his resignation did occur at a moment when Erdoğan very much relies on the services of MİT. The National Intelligence Agency has become the most prominent state institution under the AKP regime. It is on MİT that Erdoğan relies in his endeavor to dislodge the “parallel structure,” by which the AKP refers to the followers of the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, from the state apparatus. The MİT is also prominently involved in the regional operations that Turkey has been carrying out, notably in Syria, and occupies an absolutely crucial position in the ongoing talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)
Yet, alongside these legitimate concerns, there were also strictly political reasons that made it simply impossible for Erdoğan to accept Fidan’s flight from MİT to parliament, and then on to the government. As foreign minister, Hakan Fidan would have contributed to bolstering the position of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, tipping the balance in the power balance between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu in the favor of the latter. Erdoğan knows from his own rise what kind of risks that he would have faced in such a scenario.
During the 1990s, Erdoğan was himself a leading player in the power rivalry that pitted two camps – reformers and traditionalists – against each other within the ranks of the Welfare Party (RP). The struggle between the reformists, led by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, and the traditionalists (who were loyal to party leader Necmettin Erbakan) was what gave rise to the AKP. With this past in mind, Erdoğan is bound to beware of a budding Davutoğlu-Fidan alliance and inclined to see it – correctly – as an alliance that would have had the potential to reconfigure the power status quo within the AKP. Thus, Erdoğan needed not only to have his confidant back at the helm of the critically important MİT, but also to ensure that the circle around Davutoğlu does not succeed in becoming a power center on its own right.
This is also the reason why Erdoğan is trying to turn the upcoming June 7 general election into a referendum on the presidential system. Erdoğan is crisscrossing the country in his campaign to promote the presidential system. His ambition is to make sure that the AKP’s probable election victory is seen as his personal victory and as a public consent to his power designs. This strategy is directly at odds with Davutoğlu’s ambitions and is annoying his entourage. What the entourage of Davutoğlu is striving for is an election victory that serves as proof of their abilities and coming of age.
IMPLICATIONS: It is against this background that Erdoğan’s statement that he would welcome the return of former president Abdullah Gül’s to politics, and that he could be elected to parliament, needs to be understood. Erdoğan’s statement represents a remarkable about-face; so far, Erdoğan had made it abundantly clear that he wanted Gül as far away from the center of politics as possible. His about-face suggests that Erdoğan is in search of a new force to counter the threat from Davutoğlu and his entourage.
It is probable that Erdoğan is trying to check Davutoğlu – who he sees as escaping his control – and have him toe to him by brandishing the threat of Gül. Indeed, Erdoğan’s tactic did pay off: the Davutoğlu-Fidan duo was forced to back down, surrendering their accord in the face of Erdogan’s demands.
In fact, notwithstanding the uneasiness that was sometimes a feature of their relationship during Gül’s tenure as president, Gül would be a more docile, a more manageable prime minister for Erdoğan than what Davutoğlu is proving to be. He at least has the trappings of a candidate that promises to be less off a threat against the system that Erdoğan has built up. That is why Erdoğan has brought up Gül’s name again. The prospects of these designs are ultimately going to be determined in a bargaining between the two. In any case, Gül has no reason to be displeased with recent developments.
CONCLUSIONS: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be the strongest leader Turkey has known – certainly since Atatürk – but recent developments underscore that enforcing a one-man rule may nonetheless effectively not be possible even for him. One way or another, Erdoğan is going to have to share power. Whether it will be Gül or Davutoğlu who emerges as his partner in this power scheme is something that remains to be seen. But what is clear that Ahmet Davutoğlu suffered a serious setback when he was forced to let Hakan Fidan return to MİT.
(Image attribution: Al Jazeera Turkey)