Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -
A war of words between two senior AKP politicians has demonstrated that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to extend his powers are not only polarising the country but are also creating fractures within the ruling party, with potentially serious consequences for the government ahead of the crucial June parliamentary elections.
On March 23, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc publicly accused the mayor of Ankara, Melik Gokcek, of corruption and embezzlement. Arinc’s accusations came after the mayor claimed that Arinc was collaborating with Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s US-based ally-turned-foe, in order to undermine the president and the government.
The row began on March 20 when Erdogan, who regards himself as the architect of the peace process with the Kurdish guerillas, opposed the establishment of a monitoring committee to oversee the negotiations with the PKK to end the decades-long conflict. Erdogan claimed that he did not know anything about the monitoring committee, because the government did not inform him about its plan to create such a team. The idea of forming a monitoring committee is totally useless, said the president.
Arinc, a veteran politician and one of the founding members of the AKP, who will not run in the June elections, reacted to the president’s comments, saying that Erdogan should stop interfering. “We love our president, he is the people’s hero, but there is a government in this country,” said Arinc, adding that Erdogan’s comments undermine the government led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, which faces a challenging parliamentary election in June, and conducting talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, is the government’s responsibility.
Gokcek, a staunch Erdogan loyalist, could not help himself; he bombarded Arinc with a series of tweets (31 tweets in total and a link to a two-page letter), basically calling the deputy premier a traitor for his alleged ties to the Gulenist network. Davutoglu should immediately dismiss Arinc, said Gokcek. On March 23, Arinc, who is also the government spokesperson, responded to the mayor, calling him dishonourable. He also threatened to reveal Gokcek's alleged wrongdoings after the June elections.
Probe launched into Arinc and Gokcek
After the row burst into the open, Davutoglu met separately with Arinc and Gokcek, while Erdogan, who generally makes comments on everything, has kept silent. The AKP will take disciplinary action against those who damage the credibility of the party, particularly on the eve of parliamentary elections, Hurriyet Daily News quoted the premier as saying on March 24. Davutoglu only criticised the way Arinc and Gokcek handled this spat, however, and he did not say anything about Gokcek’s alleged wrongdoings. This row between the two figures from the same party is over now, declared the premier on March 25, dismissing the existence of any divisions within the party.
Meanwhile, a public prosecutor in Ankara has launched a judicial investigation into Arinc, who is accused of covering up crimes, and Gokcek, on charges of embezzlement and misconduct. An independent lawyer, a lawmaker from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), three citizens, and an NGO demanded the investigation.
The prosecutor needs permission from the Ministry of Interior Affairs to investigate Gokcek, while for Arinc to be prosecuted, his parliamentary immunity must be lifted. Given the government’s reaction to the corruption scandal that erupted in late 2013, which targeted Erdogan’s four ministers and his inner circle, it does not seem likely that the government would allow prosecutors to go ahead with the investigations before the June elections, or at any time, if it stays in office for another term.
Signs of divisions within AKP ahead of elections
Erdogan is still the most skilled, most powerful, and maybe the most ambitious, political figure in Turkey now. He survived the anti-government protests that swept across Turkey in 2013 and a massive corruption scandal later that year. Erdogan now wants to move Turkey to a formal presidential system after the June elections. But for this to happen, the AKP needs to score a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections.
Erdogan appears almost every day in live broadcasts on TV channels, and on every possible occasion he talks about the benefits of the presidential system. He recently said he wants to see at least 400 AKP deputies in the 550-seat parliament so that the ruling party could have the majority to rewrite the constitution without a public referendum. Securing 400 seats is almost impossible but this rhetoric shows how ambitious Erdogan is.
His AKP party, which he founded in 2001, is still the most popular and appears on track to win another electoral victory, according to public opinion surveys, even though some polling agencies claim that the AKP is losing ground. But there are significant discrepancies between the findings of the Turkish pollsters. For example, Metropoll estimates public support for the AKP at 41.8%, whereas the two other polling agencies, ORC and Genar, put the party’s votes at between 47.7% and 50%. Some AKP voters are not happy with the peace talks and they are now supporting the nationalist MHP, according to Metropoll, which says the MHP could get 17.8% of the votes. The surveys estimate public support for the centre-left main opposition party CHP at 23%-26%.
The Kurdish party HDP could be the main headache for Erdogan. The HDP has abandoned its previous tactic of fielding independent candidates in elections and this time it has decided to stand as a party. But with this move the HSP risks failing to clear the 10% threshold to enter parliament. According to the pollsters, public support for the HDP is hovering around 9%. Erdogan’s recent denial of the existence of a Kurdish problem in Turkey could alienate AKP’s Kurdish voters and the HDP could capitalise on this frustration. HDP’s leader Selahattin Demirtas has already vowed to block Erdogan’s executive presidential ambitions if his party enters parliament after the June elections.
The enemy within
“Arguably, with the weak state of the formal opposition, the main challenge to Erdogan is appearing from within”, commented Tim Ash, an economist at Standard Bank.
When he won the presidential election in 2014, Erdogan picked then foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as his successor, hoping that it would be easy for him to work with Davuoglu, a former scholar who lacks Erdogan’s charisma. However, apparently Erdogan is now not very happy with the way the Davutoglu-led government deals with economic and political issues, including the peace process with the PKK. Erdogan has already chaired two cabinet meetings since he was elected president, showing that he calls all the shots in Ankara.
Davutoglu, meanwhile, has avoided any public confrontation with the president. When Erdogan criticised the central bank for failing to cut interest rates fast and deeply enough, sending the lira to record lows against the dollar, Davutoglu did not defend the bank’s governor Erdem Basci. Or when the president opposed the government’s proposal for the creation of the monitoring committee for the PKK negotiations, Davutoglu did not challenge Erdogan.
According to some commentators, Arinc’s comments, directed at Erdogan over the peace process, may be the first signs of growing frustrations among AKP ranks over Erdogan’s relentless efforts to maintain and extend his powers. “The exchange of words between Erdogan and Arinc is over the Kurdish issue only on the surface. Actually, it was about the powers of the president and the government”, wrote the respected political commentator, Murat Yetkin, on March 24 in Hurriyet Daily News. “Whose words should be taken into account to understand what Turkey says: the president or the government?” asked Yetkin, adding this issue is what Davutoglu needs to clarify - not only in rhetoric but also in practice - for the sake of the predictability and thus credibility of the Turkish government.
AKP’s landslide victory in elections may lead to Erdogan’s one-man rule
It is not clear how many AKP deputies are disturbed by Erdogan’s interference and his ambitious plans. It is difficult to judge whether Arinc is speaking for himself or if he is representing a group of disillusioned AKP lawmakers. Not a single AKP lawmaker has yet come out to throw his/her support behind Arinc. Maybe, Arinc is only brave enough to speak his mind because he will not seek another term in office. But there are around 70 AKP lawmakers who will not be able to run in the elections because of the AKP’s internal three-term rule, yet all these lawmakers keep quiet. It looks like nobody in the AKP, at least for the time being, dares to rebel against Erdogan.
The opposition parties are betting that if economic conditions further deteriorate, and if Erdogan’s endless interference continues, cracks could appear within the AKP before the elections. But then who would lead the rebel lawmakers? Former president Abdullah Gul? Gul recently said he is not interested in politics any more. The bitter irony is that Davutoglu is now practically campaigning for Erdogan, demanding votes for both the AKP and Erdogan’s future one-man rule. If the AKP secures enough votes in the June elections to rewrite the constitution to formally declare a presidential system in Turkey, this will be the end of Davutoglu who will remain in the shadows. Erdogan will rule in a country that lacks proper mechanism of checks and balances.
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