Reports of the political demise of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests were exaggerated. In fact, the findings of a think tank headed by an AKP deputy hint that not only is the ruling party alive and well, it may actually be undergoing a “course correction.” This correction, in turn, could have profound implications for next year’s local and presidential elections in Turkey.
Headed by Idris Bal, a UK-trained professor of international relations and AKP deputy for Kutahya province, the Eurasia Global Research Center’s (AGAM) findings criticize the government’s heavy-handed response to the protests. Instead of pointing fingers at Erdogan, however, the AGAM report (aptly given the objective-sounding title, “Analysis of the Taksim Events”) blames the prime minister’s advisers for “misinforming” their boss and unnecessarily forcing him to takes sides in the Gezi protests. It was Erdogan’s poorly informed subordinates, not Erdogan himself, who turned a small sit-in at Gezi Park into a nationwide uprising. It was a “strategic mistake,” reads the report, to blow out of proportion a matter that should have been for Istanbul residents, the district municipality of Beyoglu, and the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul to decide.
Other observations on the AGAM report are more straightforward: Democracy, it says, is not just about elections. The government ought to establish and maintain dialogue with civil society groups and the general public on Gezi-like urban transformation projects to maintain legitimacy. Had the AKP acted in such a democratic fashion, suggests AGAM, the protests would not have spun out of control as they did. Also, while praising the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and its leader, Devlet Bahceli, for not inflaming tensions during the protests, AGAM criticizes the main opposition group, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) for “acting irresponsibly.”
All in all, the report expresses hope that everyone in Turkey will draw the “appropriate lessons” from the Gezi protests.
In fact, the timing and content of the AGAM report suggest that it may have been written for precisely that purpose. The report, it should be remembered, was produced at a think tank headed by an AKP deputy. More importantly, AGAM basically concludes with what many observers wish the AKP and Erdogan had done in June: Use a conciliatory tone toward protesters, prevent excessive use of force by the police and relegate decision-making on urban development projects to local authorities.
Will the AKP make use of that prescription? That it comes from within its own ranks, it should. In fact, it is perfectly sensible to speculate that Erdogan and the AKP leadership encouraged Bal and AGAM to publish their findings so as to refashion their image accordingly.
That speculation may seem counterintuitive. After all, AKP still controls all of the commanding heights of Turkish politics and, despite the damage to its image from the Gezi protests, it has the upper hand. The party holds a significant majority in the National Assembly and its mayors run Istanbul and Ankara — the two largest metropolitan municipalities in Turkey.
But if the opposition could wrest at least one of those municipalities and several smaller ones from the AKP and prevent the ruling party from taking CHP and MHP municipalities such as Izmir and Adana in next year’s local elections, it could negatively affect Erdogan’s aspirations to become president later in fall 2014. Indeed, such an AKP loss is quite likely in Ankara. In 2009, CHP and MHP candidates, despite losing to AKP’s Melih Gokcek, had more combined votes than Gokcek. Thus, if CHP and MHP could agree to field a joint candidate in Ankara, they may have a shot at taking back a critical AKP stronghold. With Ankara gone, Erdogan’s image of electoral invincibility (he has constantly increased his votes since 2002) could be damaged beyond repair.
Looking at that picture, it makes sense for Erdogan and his close advisers in the AKP to adopt the recommendations of their own deputy. As Al-Monitor’s Tulin Daloglu has recently pointed out, Erdogan and the AKP are extremely able in refuting their past stances, only to re-adopt them if and when it becomes convenient. By distancing themselves from police excesses and the vitriolic rhetoric of the Gezi protests, Erdogan and the AKP will have a serious chance in next year’s elections. The opposition in Turkey should take note.
Barın Kayaoğlu, a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia. You can follow him at www.barinkayaoglu.com, on Twitter @barinkayaoglu, and Facebook at BarınKayaoğlu.com.
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