The resignation of Turkey’s powerful spy chief Hakan Fidan to run for parliament on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket has triggered frenzied speculation about a potentially game-changing rift between the country’s president and prime minister. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's surprise decision to cut short a trip to Latin America on Feb. 13 carried such conjecture to new highs amid claims that it was prompted by the “Fidan crisis.” After 13 years in power, is the AKP beginning to crack? Might Erdogan be losing his grip? Many demand to know.
In fact, a steady flow of bureaucrats are throwing their hats into the electoral ring. Why all the fuss about Fidan? The former noncommissioned officer is among Erdogan’s closest allies, and was, prior to stepping down, arguably the second most powerful man in the country. Erdogan, who is said to regard him as a son, had vested Fidan with sweeping powers to implement policy on several critical fronts, notably over Syria, the Kurdish peace process and the battle to defang his archenemy, Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Sunni preacher, and his followers have been waging a long-running campaign against the former intelligence chief. This includes the outlandish charge that Fidan, who served on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of directors in 2008, is “pro-Iranian” and therefore by definition “anti-Israeli.” (A Turkish official who declined to be identified told Al-Monitor that Fidan had met with his Israeli counterpart at least twice since his appointment as the head of national intelligence in 2010.)
Erdogan is said to have vetoed an earlier pitch by Fidan to quit his job to switch places with Ahmet Davutoglu, who was then foreign minister. When the president again expressed disapproval this time around, many claimed that the entire affair was staged: Erdogan wanted Fidan to be the new prime minister after the elections but was feigning opposition so as to help save face for Davutoglu. The fact that Davutoglu sided with Fidan was part of this charade.
Others countered that "yes, Erdogan did not want Fidan to go," but in the words of Asli Aydintasbas, a prominent Turkish columnist, Erdogan's reaction was purely emotional. Erdogan was not “angry” but “hurt” by the move, she says. Aydintasbas concludes that Fidan’s “resignation does not represent a serious fracture in the government” and nothing more than “a realignment of positions within the governing bloc.”
Many Western diplomats tend to agree, dismissing the debate as “Kremlinology.” Al-Monitor contributor Rasim Ozan Kutahyali goes further in asserting that "there will be no Davutoglu-Erdogan conflict," and that "Erdogan will continue to be the most influential force in Turkish politics."
But sources with access to all three men paint a somewhat different picture, saying that Davutoglu and Fidan have stolen a march on the president, yet their success is in no way guaranteed. Speaking on strict condition of anonymity, the sources laid out their arguments more or less as follows:
- Davutoglu is highly ambitious and is not about to settle into the role of Erdogan’s puppet.
- Davutoglu is therefore opposed to Erdogan’s plans to endow himself with executive powers through constitutional changes to be made after the elections. He will go out of his way to block them.
- He is not alone. A growing number within the AKP feel uneasy about the prospect of Erdogan concentrating power in his hands and not only because this stunts their own ambitions to lead some day.
- Encircled by sycophants, an increasingly erratic Erdogan lives in a bubble symbolized by his lavish new palace, the “Ak Saray.” With his global image in tatters he is fast becoming a liability for the AKP and Turkey alike. (The president’s endless rants against the central bank for resisting his demands to slash interest rates are but one example.)
- Fidan is no fool and wants to distance himself from Erdogan
- Differences over policy have emerged, particularly over the handling of the Kurdish issue. For instance, Davutoglu and Fidan fully backed the US-devised plan for Iraqi peshmerga fighters to bring in weapons and deploy in Kobani via Turkey. But Erdogan (and the army) dragged their feet.
- A leaked conversation between Davutoglu, Fidan, a Turkish general and the Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, in which possible scenarios for going to war with Syria are debated, also exposed the cracks. Contrary to the widespread assumption that Fidan was in favor of using the Turkish soldiers guarding the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in Syria as an excuse for going to war, he waves the flag of caution, as does Davutoglu. The idea is said to have been Erdogan’s.
- The imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan is said to trust Fidan like no other. Thus if Fidan assumes a political role within the government, Erdogan may have less leverage over the peace negotiations. The Kurds are key to his presidential dreams. Should they throw their weight behind Davutoglu and Fidan, the negotiations will go awry. Their election strategy may offer clues as to which way they are tilting, a subject worthy of another piece.
On the flip side:
- Erdogan could always play the army card. His fallout with Gulen has run parallel to rapprochement with the generals.
- None of his rivals have either his charisma or popular touch.
- He has very deep pockets.
- The party base continues to support him.
- Erdogan has emerged victorious and stronger from every challenge he has faced so far.
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