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Will Bulent Arinc, founding father of AKP, depart over dispute with Erdogan?

Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Bulent Arinc, a voice of reason in Turkish politics, has signaled that he may retire after a very public dispute with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was in autumn 1997, shortly before the school year opened in Turkey. Bulent Arinc still remembers every moment of that day.

He was touring a district of Manisa — the Aegean province from which he had been elected to the national parliament in 1995 on the Welfare Party (RP) ticket. The day’s schedule included various opening ceremonies where he would socialize with locals.

Arinc’s oldest son Fatih, named after the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, went along — unwillingly. Fatih did not like such political events, but his father insisted that he join him. 

Arinc shook many hands and made speeches that morning as Fatih quietly watched. It was a Friday, so at noon father and son went to the mosque and prayed together. Then, it was the same thing all over again: more handshakes, more promises. Wherever they went, constituents surrounded Arinc, and he listened to their qualms, always giving them his full attention. At one such stop, Fatih got in a car and left.

Arinc did not see his son depart. Later, when he asked where Fatih was, no one had an answer. Concerned, he told his associates to look for his son as he kept on with the program, moving from one neighborhood to another. At the opening ceremony of a bakery, he tasted a pie fresh out of oven and asked that some of it be wrapped up for Fatih.

The news came at that very moment. A car had been run over by a train. Fatih had been in that car and died immediately.

He was only 17.

By all accounts, losing Fatih made Arinc — 49 at the time — a much mellower and emotional man. He wanted to quit politics, but was persuaded by his fellow party members to stay.

Fast forward 16 years.

Arinc, Turkey’s deputy prime minister and spokesman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, is once again considering retirement.

On Nov. 15, he asked a reporter to rephrase his question. “Make your question about children, then ask me again,” he said.

This is not the type of request one hears everyday, but the journalist complied. “As kids, we were often offended by our friends and stopped talking to them. Does it still happen to you? Is there anyone you’ve been offended by in politics at the moment?”

It was the Child and Media Convention in Istanbul — the first occasion Arinc found himself surrounded by a group of reporters in the aftermath of his very public falling-out with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

His answer was brief. Pointing out that he responded for the love of children only, he said, “No, at the moment there isn’t.”

What had transpired between Erdogan and Arinc was reported extensively by Turkish and international media, including Al-Monitor. (Read Thomas Seibert’s Nov. 15 column for a good analysis of the dispute.) I will not repeat the two leaders’ contradictory remarks regarding coed student houses, but let me just say that Arinc’s statement that the government could not interfere with private lives of men and women renting apartments together was welcome by anyone who valued the sanctity of the home. As columnist Taha Akyol wrote, that statement was “reasonable ... lawful ... and had a calming effect.”

This was not the first time Arinc disagreed with Erdogan. Indeed, the not very short list of incidents during which the two men thought and acted differently go all the way back to the first days of the AKP reign in 2002.

Nor was it unprecedented that the Turkish public heard the voice of reason from Arinc, in a much-needed counterpoint to the more authoritarian tone often adopted by Erdogan.

Rumors of Arinc’s resignation, which were later denied by him, became public during the first days of the Gezi Park protests following his disagreements with Erdogan. In direct contrast with Erdogan’s quick dismissal of the protesters’ motives and praise of the robust reaction by the police, Arinc said on June 4 that the excessive use of violence against those acting with environmental sensitivity was unfair and he apologized to harmed citizens.

To diehard opponents of AKP, Arinc’s — and President Abdullah Gul’s — use of a markedly different style than Erdogan is just a good cop-bad cop game. However, both private conversations with people close to Arinc and a careful reading of his various statements on style over the years indicate that his dislike for harsh words is as genuine as his occasional efforts to protect Erdogan from his own aggressive tone. 

On the other hand, his mild temperament has gained Arinc the appreciation of many liberals and secularists. For one, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), recently called Arinc “AKP’s wise man.”  

The irony, of course, is that Arinc is no less pious or conservative than Erdogan. At the age of 65 — with Gul and Erdogan younger than him by two and six years respectively — he can now look back at a four-decade political career that is deeply rooted in the traditions of the National Outlook Movement, which finds Turkey’s basic source of greatness in moral and spiritual strength derived from Islam.

When asked by the late President Turgut Ozal to break away from that tradition and join the more liberal Motherland Party in the early 1980s, Arinc declined. Many years later, he said he had never regretted his decision not to switch parties, although he wished to be on the side of Ozal, the man.

A lawyer by profession and a master of speaking with complex yet clear phrases, Arinc certainly was not careless with his words during his live interview with broadcaster TRT Turk on Nov. 8. In an open outcry meant for Erdogan’s ears, he said: “I have specific weight ... I’m someone who represents the party’s thoughts, opinions of the past, today and the future. I shouldn’t be neglected.”

Nine days passed and Erdogan has not said anything in public to ameliorate Arinc’s discernible resentment except for posing hand-in-hand with him and other AKP heavyweights in a rally in Diyarbakir.

But then, the fact that Arinc’s decision to stay or go might depend on what Erdogan would say is part of the problem itself. As columnist Dogan Akin wrote recently, at the root of Arinc’s unease is Erdogan’s insistence on running the party, the government and the nation as a "one-man show."

Arinc might end up being the only one among current AKP leaders to respect their party’s promise and, for that matter, bylaws that three terms should be the limit for political office.

As good an example as his retirement will set for younger politicians about knowing when to call it quits, Arinc’s absence may be sorely felt. With his exit, the Turkish political scene will lose one of its most eloquent speakers ever. And, more critically for the country, the upper echelon of the AKP will lose a rare remaining voice of prudence.

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