BACKGROUND: Not surprisingly, Arınç’s statements triggered a barrage of abuse from Erdoğan’s followers in the press and on social media. Some of the most vicious came from Melih Gökçek, the controversial AKP mayor of Ankara, who narrowly won a fourth successive term in office in March 2014 amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Although Gökçek has an uneasy personal relationship with Erdoğan, he nevertheless lambasted both Arınç and his family and called on him to resign or be dismissed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. On March 23,Arınç hit back by publicly accusing Gökçek of corruption, including claiming that Gökçek had illegally sold municipality-owned land “piece by piece” to members of the Gülen Movement, Erdoğan’s erstwhile allies who have now become his most hated enemies.(See February 13, 2013 and December 4, 2013 Turkey Analyst) On March 24, the public prosecutor in Ankara initiated criminal investigations against both men: Gökçek on possible charges of corruption and Arınç on possible charges of concealing evidence of corruption.
Although it was overshadowed by the unprecedented spectacle of two leading members of the AKP feuding so bitterly in public, Erdoğan subsequently repeated his opposition to the monitoring committee. He also attacked government ministers – led by Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, Erdogan’s former chief advisor and one of his staunchest loyalists – for participating in a joint press conference on February 28, 2015, at which a delegation from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) read out a list of ten points drawn up by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that were expected to form the basis of discussions to resolve the Kurdish issue. Erdoğan described the press conference as a mistake and declared that he was opposed to any discussions about possible reforms to address Kurdish demands until the PKK first laid down its arms.
On the evening of March 24, Davutoğlu – who had previously neither commented publicly nor interceded privately during the vitriolic exchange between Gökçek and Arınç – issued a public statement saying that both men had been wrong and that the matter was now closed. On March 25, Akdoğan vigorously slated the HDP and the PKK for “not acting in an appropriate manner” with regard to the resolution of the Kurdish issue, claiming that they were “poisoning” the prospects for peace – an apparent reference to the PKK’s refusal to disarm. Lest there be any doubt about the reason for the timing of his outburst, Akdoğan noted: “Whatever the president says is an order for us.”
The AKP has also announced that it will accelerate its efforts to legislate its draconian new Domestic Security Bill before parliament goes into recess on April 7, ahead of the general election on June 7. The new law gives the authorities greater powers to suppress dissent and anti-government demonstrations, including relaxing restrictions on when police can shoot to kill. The law is a response to the civil unrest that swept the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey in October 2014 and is expected to be mainly used against future protests by Kurdish nationalists.
IMPLICATIONS: The response of the AKP government to Erdoğan’s criticism of its policies on the Kurdish issue is symptomatic of the system of “presidential tutelage” that now prevails in Turkey, even though it is still nominally a parliamentary democracy.
Soon after becoming president, Erdoğan appropriated for his own use a sprawling $615 million palace that had been built to house the prime ministry and paid for out of prime ministerial funds. Since the beginning of 2015, Erdoğan has twice chaired Cabinet meetings, a constitutional right his predecessors only exercised in times of national emergency. He frequently bypasses Davutoğlu and issues his own orders to ministers and receives briefings from them. In February 2015, Erdoğan intervened after National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan resigned in the hope of becoming an AKP candidate in the June 2015 general election. When he realized that Erdoğan was rigorously opposed to his candidacy, Fidan withdrew his application and was duly reappointed as head of MİT. (See March 11, 2015 Turkey Analyst)
Erdoğan has made it clear that he regards the June general election as an opportunity for the AKP to secure a large enough parliamentary majority to draft a new constitution and formalize his domination of the government by introducing a system in which all political power is concentrated in the office of the presidency.
But, even before Arınç’s outburst, there were already signs that it is going to be very difficult for Erdoğan to realize his ambitions. In the short-term, Erdoğan needs the AKP to secure at least 330 of the 550 seats in parliament on June 7 – the minimum needed to put a new constitution to a referendum. The only way the AKP is going to achieve this is if the HDP fails to cross the 10 per cent national threshold for representation in parliament. Although it is currently still expected to fall just short, opinion polls suggest that support for the HDP is now very close to the threshold – and the party has begun to come under increasing attack from Erdoğan and the AKP as a result.
Even if the HDP fails to get into parliament, the AKP is probably only going to win a maximum of 350-360 seats. Erdoğan is expected to vet the AKP candidates for the June election. But it is going to be difficult to ensure that they all vote for a new constitution, particularly as the system envisaged by Erdoğan will effectively make parliament – and all of its members – redundant. Privately, many in the AKP are already disturbed by Erdoğan’s plans and complain that what they describe as the “cause” (i.e. the reshaping of Turkish politics and society in line with their conservative Sunni Islamic beliefs) has become subordinate to his personal ambition.
Arınç is the only leading member of the party who has had the nerve to challenge Erdoğan publicly. But equally telling have been the silences. For example, Davutoğlu has yet to give any indication that he supports the introduction of a presidential system. One of the reasons for the silence is the fear of Erdoğan’s likely reaction. There is also an awareness that any public splits in the AKP could harm the party’s prospects in the general election – particularly after the feud between Gökçek and Arınç. But this restraint will no longer apply after June 2015.
Opinion polls suggest that the overwhelmingly majority – including over half of all AKP voters – are opposed to the introduction of a presidential system. More ominously for Erdoğan, both his personal popularity and that of the AKP appear to have peaked. For example, in August 2014 he was elected president with 51.8 per cent of the popular vote, compared with the 49.8 per cent the AKP won at the last general election in June 2011. However, the apparent increase was mainly the product of what was by Turkish standards a low turnout (74.1 per cent, compared with 83.2 per cent in 2011) as the result of the main opposition parties fielding an uninspiring candidate. Even though the electorate had grown by 2.9 million between the two elections, Erdoğan won 21.0 million votes in August 2014 (37.7 per cent of those eligible to vote) compared with 21.4 million votes (40.5 per cent of eligible voters) for the AKP in June 2011.
Since the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, Erdoğan has concentrated on trying to deepen rather than broaden his popular support base by actively pitting one section of Turkish society against another. The resultant social polarization is now too deep for Erdoğan to be able to win over substantial numbers of voters who have not supported him in the past. There are also signs that his own support – though still strong – is weakening.
The upward trajectory of AKP votes in successive general elections (34.3 per cent in 2002, 46.6 per cent in 2007, 49.8 per cent in 2011) was largely based on two factors: sustained economic growth and Erdoğan’s ability to make Turkey’s voters feel good about themselves, convincing even some non-AKP voters that Turkey had become a regional power and a respected global player under his leadership. But the pace of economic growth has now begun to slow and Turkey is more internationally isolated and ineffective than at any time since Erdoğan first came to power. This has not prevented the AKP’s propaganda outlets from regaling their followers with neo-Ottoman dreams of regional hegemony. If anything, such efforts have increased. But in recent months in particular there has been a significant shift from claims – however delusional – of tangible achievements to often racist and anti-Semitic conspiracies about alleged machinations to try to prevent Turkey’s otherwise inexorable rise to greatness. Although Erdoğan may not be aware of it, there is also a sense of desperation in his increasing attempts to stifle free speech and intimidate his critics into silence. Since August 2014, more than 70 people have been prosecuted – and some have already received jail terms – for allegedly insulting Erdoğan.
CONCLUSIONS: Ever since the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, there has been a sense that Turkey has entered the final stage of the Erdoğan era but that it could be a long final stage. (See January 14, 2014 Turkey Analyst) If the HDP wins seats in parliament in June 2015, Erdoğan’s ambitions will suffer a devastating blow and his opponents – including those within the AKP – will be emboldened.
Nor would a large AKP majority and the introduction of a presidential system ensure Erdoğan’s political longevity. The result would almost certainly be more political instability, increased civil unrest, continuing international isolation, an economic slowdown and – given Erdoğan’s seemingly boundless self-confidence and predilection for loyalty rather than ability amongst those close to him – a deepening of the already worrying competence deficit in the higher echelons of the administration. Under such circumstances it is difficult to see how Erdoğan could win a second term in office in a free election in August 2019.
For the moment, Erdoğan still has the momentum – in terms of his authority within the AKP and his grassroots support – to win battles. But, when it comes to his dreams of ruling Turkey singlehandedly for the next decade, he appears increasingly likely to lose the war. Yet Erdoğan is unlikely to go quietly and there appears little prospect of Turkey enjoying political stability or sustained prosperity while he remains in office.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Subuo Haber)