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Is Turkey experiencing the autumn of the patriarch?

The Justice and Development Party's well-nurtured image as a unified political force is taking hits.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara November 13, 2013. Erdogan said on Wednesday work on the Trans-Anatolian natural gas pipeline project (TANAP), which will carry Azeri natural gas, will begin in early 2014. Turkey, which has a 20 percent stake in TANAP, and Azerbaijan, which controls 80 percent, are looking at ways to cooperate on shipping Azeri gas to the Balkans, Erdogan also said after talks with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in Ankara. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags

After 11 years in power, deep rifts are appearing within Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Party leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has drawn criticism from senior AKP figures after pledging to ban mixed-sex student housing, a move designed to please conservative voters. Some pundits say the dissent is a sign that Erdogan may have passed the peak of his power. But the prime minister’s advisers stress that Erdogan’s political instincts are as sound as ever and that their boss has once again read the mind of the conservative public correctly ahead of key local elections in March.

Erdogan, who founded the AKP in 2001, has made his party more successful than any other political group since the introduction of multi-party elections in Turkey in the 1940s. Under Erdogan, the AKP has won three consecutive national elections and two local elections, and has sent its co-founder, former Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, into the presidential palace as head of state. According to figures recently released by Turkey’s judiciary, the AKP has eight times as many members as the biggest opposition group, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 8 million versus 1 million.

At 59, the prime minister is the undisputed leader of the AKP, and the party is careful to project an image of a unified political force. But that image has taken several hits recently. When the Gezi Park protests erupted in early June, government spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, standing in for Erdogan during a foreign visit by the prime minister, apologized for police brutality. Upon his return to Turkey several days later, Erdogan dismissed Arinc’s efforts to de-escalate the situation, choosing a hard-line position instead.

Last week, Arinc, a co-founder of the AKP and one of the most powerful men in the party, was at odds with the prime minister again. After the Zaman newspaper quoted Erdogan as telling attendees of a closed-door meeting that his government would act to prevent unmarried female and male university students from living together, Arinc flatly denied the report, only to see Erdogan confirm it the next day. Arinc decided to vent his anger and went on state television to say he would not be anyone’s “sandbag.”

Other serving and former AKP politicians also expressed dismay at the prime minister’s position. Fatma Bostan Unsal, another founding member of the AKP, called Erdogan’s stance “very dangerous.” The Taraf daily reported that Arinc received messages of support from several ministers of the Erdogan government.

Erdogan used a speech to the AKP’s parliamentary group this week to remind dissidents that differences should be dealt with behind closed doors, but that did not stop the criticism. Plans by the government for a reform of the education system have also met with opposition from within the AKP. Idris Bal, an AKP deputy known to disagree with Erdogan from time to time, publicly criticized the project and warned that children of poorer families would suffer.

Criticism of the sort expressed by Arinc and Bal does not pose a direct challenge to Erdogan, who remains popular with conservative Turks. But it is a sign that there are doubts within the ruling party about the prime minister’s hard-line approach that aims to unite conservative voters behind the AKP at the price of disenchanting more liberal Turks.

Andrew Mango, a historian and author of a widely praised biography of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, told the BirGun newspaper this week that some in the AKP had the feeling that “the prime minister has passed his use-by date.” Mango compared Erdogan to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign by her own party,” Mango said. “In the same way, the AKP could force Erdogan to resign.”

Mango is not alone in thinking that Erdogan’s best times may be behind him. Gunter Seufert, a Turkey expert and senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said in a recent paper that Erdogan’s popularity among Kurds and liberal Turks has been falling for some time. Now former conservative supporters of the prime minister, like the religiously conservative MUSIAD business association, are beginning to criticize Erdogan as well, he wrote.

Another powerful AKP ally, the movement led by Muslim scholar and preacher Fethullah Gulen, is closer to President Gul than to Erdogan, Seufert pointed out. Zaman, the movement’s flagship newspaper, has become more critical of the government recently. “Erdogan has passed the zenith of his power,” Seufert concluded.

Should local elections in March result in a setback for the AKP, opposition against Erdogan within the ruling party could grow. The prime minister is also faced with the question of how to convince Gul, a more moderate politician who is popular within the AKP as well as among non-AKP voters, to step down next summer, when Erdogan wants to move to the presidential palace himself.

Erdogan’s aides say the prime minister’s opponents should not expect to profit from the current debates within the AKP. Unity will prevail, they say. Despite his public criticism of the prime minister, Arinc has accepted an invitation by Erdogan to accompany him on a visit to Turkey’s Kurdish region.

Pundits and opposition figures have it all wrong, the prime minister’s men are saying. Yalcin Akdogan, a close Erdogan adviser, this week published details of a poll that said 55% of Turkish voters agree with Erdogan in rejecting the idea of unmarried young people of both sexes living under one roof. Support for Erdogan on that issue among AKP voters stood at almost 93%, Akdogan said. Even 44% of CHP voters did not like unmarried young people sharing apartments.

Will Erdogan’s strategy to woo conservative Turks in order to lay the groundwork for future AKP election victories pay off in the end? Akdogan certainly thinks so, even if many others in Turkey, and even some in the AKP, are beginning to have their doubts.

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