Turkey’s 'Erdogan Problem'

Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared in September 2012 that he won’t run for parliamentary office again, his decisions on his next step will determine the future of Turkish politics.

al-monitor Protesters shout slogans as they block the main Istiklal street in central Istanbul, July 8, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Cevahir Bugu.

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turkish police, turkey, protests, erdogan, chp, akp

Jul 17, 2013

Until Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s future path in politics becomes clear, time to talk about political stability in Turkey is over. This has nothing to do with the ongoing scattered protests since June against Erdogan’s way of politics, which were sparked in an attempt to save a green space in downtown Istanbul but got out of control due to excessive use of police force. It, however, all has to do with Erdogan’s decision not to run for parliament again. “Based on our party regulations, I am running for the chairmanship of (Justice and Development Party, AKP) for the (third and) last time,” Erdogan said on Sept. 30, 2012, at the AKP’s fourth regular general congress. “After (this term is over), I will do what my party tells me to do. As long as God allows me to live, inshallah we will be together again serving our nation with different duties, with different titles.”

What Erdogan wants is to be the country’s first elected president under a presidential system — assigning the parliamentary system to the shelves of history. But it’s not happening. Although the parliament’s constitution drafting commission has shown some progress and agreed on 48 articles, the opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP, and Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, are adamant that AKP’s insistence on the presidential system is preventing the negotiations from moving forward constructively. On July 10, though, Erdogan confronted them and exclaimed that he would withdraw his offer on changing to the presidential system if they could approve into law all those 48 agreed articles at the commission. “Let’s finish this constitution-making thing this summer,” Erdogan said.  “Let’s prove whether we or you are sincere.”  This is nothing but Erdogan’s sincere expression of frustration that he is not able to get what he wants.

Better put by CHP spokesman Haluk Koc on July 17: “(Erdogan’s offer for ratifying the 48 articles that are agreed upon) are no different than making constitution by installments.”

Many in Ankara’s political beltway, therefore, speculate that Turkey has an “Erdogan problem.” Some speculate that it will be best for Erdogan to backtrack from strictly following his party regulations for not running for office more than three times, and seek the prime minister’s post for a fourth time no matter what — as he is so confident that AKP will score a big victory again at the next general election scheduled for 2015. Others, however, argue that the best way forward is to convince Erdogan to run for president under the current system, and allow Abdullah Gul, the president, to take over the prime minister’s office. Gul has the best position in the party as he has run for office only twice since AKP came to power in 2002. While Gul’s becoming prime minister sounds like a more rational solution, the thing is that it also promises to be problematic.

First and foremost, Erdogan is not an easy character. If he wins the presidency with more votes than AKP, he may easily argue to Gul — if Gul becomes prime minister — that the number of people who voted for him is more than the people who voted for the party in general, and that therefore he has a superior position to influence government policy. If it turned out to be the other way around, Gul might not argue the same point, but that does not mean that the AKP receiving more votes overall than Erdogan does  would mean no friction. There are already so many obscure rumors about these two men. If they become the country’s two highest-level elected officials, they may end up “not” finding ways to cover up the tension in their relationship any longer.

Whether it’s for real or not, many in Ankara’s political beltway are convinced that the Gezi Park protests have sharpened the division between Erdogan and Gul — the latter painting an image of being a more soft-spoken, inclusive and peacemaking character, as well as being supported by the famous religious movement of Fethullah Gulen. Some opposition politicians and analysts are convinced that Gul and the Cemaat —  another way of referring to the Fethullah Gulen movement —  have already put in place their people all across the country, and are waiting for a green light from the president to make the final call whether he is in the game to break away from the AKP and form a new party. My bet is that it’s unlikely, and that Gul won’t have the courage to take such a step forward also for his own interests, but all tells me I am naïve and don’t fully understand what’s happening in the political sphere. Time will tell.

As for the Gezi Park protests, there was a time when many analysts speculated that the police — widely known to be in control of the Cemaat — ordered the unprecedented attack at early hours of the morning of May 31, causing the tents of the protesters to catch fire, which eventually became the turning point and led people to come to the streets in reaction to the police's excessive use of force. This speculation about the Cemaat-police connection is now nullified —  Erdogan has taken full responsibility for the police action during the protests, putting him in a position to have ordered that police action for the morning of May 31. Whether the prime minister has gone an extra mile to prevent the image of a split between his camp and the Cemaat is nothing but speculation for now and it is difficult to assess whether it is meaningful to dwell on that issue.

Back to the beginning, though. While Erdogan might have announced his decision to not run for parliamentary office again, it does not mean that he wants to stay away from politics. He wants to move to Cankaya as the country’s first elected president — just as he wants to be the man to resolve the country’s Kurdish issue. This is the only way that he thinks he will be able to really overcome the legacy of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The problem is, it still looks like it will be difficult for everything to end up as he desires. He may, however, be the next elected president under the current system.

That said, Turkey is a country full of surprises. AKP’s victory in the next general elections may also not be so certain. Although the news has already been denied by both opposition parties, there have been reports in the Turkish media of a gentlemen's agreement between the CHP and MHP for the upcoming local elections in March 2014 to defeat the AKP together at the ballot box. There are other news reports of potential new alliances that may lead to formation of new parties, as well. It’s just difficult to take the pulse of these developments in politics for now, but it’s all clear that while there is an “Erdogan problem” in the country in terms of how his political career will be shaped by and after August 2014, there are also some new awakenings for a real opposition movement.

It’s all the better reason to enjoy this hot summer, alas …

Tulin Daloglu is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has also written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneThe Middle East TimesForeign PolicyThe Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.

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