Erdoğan rivals expelled after touching sore point: peace process

After months of dissent in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the long-running sagas of two breakaway political movements, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is determined to bring matters to a head.

The president has chosen to meet the challenge from one of his new rivals, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, head on. This column last week noted the war of words heating up between the former colleagues.

On Monday, Erdoğan took the bull by the horns, expelling Davutoğlu and three of his allies, Parliamentary Human Rights Commission head Ayhan Sefer Üstün, Istanbul deputy Abdullah Başçı and former deputy vice chairman and Manisa deputy Selçuk Özdağ.

The expulsions were preceded by months of criticism from Davutoğlu, who finally hinted that he could reveal serious wrongdoing by the ruling party in the 2014-2016 period while he was prime minister, referring to a series of attacks that led to the breakdown of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The peace process broke down in the summer of 2015, shortly after the AKP lost its majority in the biggest blow to its rule after 13 years in power.

That this blow was partly inflicted by the emergence of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as a parliamentary party, and that the AKP responded to its loss by forging an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has led to much speculation that the resumption of fighting with Kurdish militants was engineered by a government under threat.

Hilal Kaplan, a columnist at the pro-government newspaper Sabah and alleged member of the “Pelican” clique that many believe to have used its media and government links to influence policy, offered a new take on the broken negotiations.

“Was it just a coincidence that the largest civil upheaval in republican history came at the same time as the first time in 40 years that a political solution had been tried in the struggle against terror?” Kaplan said in her column on Wednesday.

In other words, according to Kaplan, the millions of Turks who took to the streets to demonstrate against the government during the 2013 Gezi Park protests may have been guided by enemies who wished to sabotage the peace process.

“Those who supported Gezi and spearheaded the FETÖ provocations are today brazenly criticising the struggle against terror,” Kaplan said, using an acronym for the outlawed Gülen religious movement that the AKP blames for the July 2016 coup attempt.

Articles like this likely represent the first shots in what columnist Abdulkadir Selvi described this week as Erdoğan’s decision to tackle the new party, and broader intraparty dissent, with a head-on fight.

They may also show how battle lines are being drawn in the ruling party around the so-called Pelicanists on one side and side-lined veteran party members on the other.

Two lawyers filed a criminal complaint against the Pelican group this week, accusing the group among other things of committing crimes against the government by plotting to oust Davutoğlu.

The complaint reflects, on the one hand, the anger that many ruling party members feel at a group that is felt to be using unscrupulous means to push its own agenda while also using smears stifling criticism from respected AKP veterans. It may well also show that Davutoğlu is counting on this to consolidate his own support.

At the same time, it appears that circles in the ruling party have become uneasy even at mention of the group. TV5, a channel linked to the Islamist “National Vision” movement that Erdoğan rose up in, was fined by Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog after journalist Etyen Mahçupyan discussed the Pelican group on air.

The discontent within the AKP appears to be very real. A supporter of Davutoğlu who resigned from the party this week in solidarity with the former prime minister made the claim that as many as 770,000 members had resigned in the last year.

These are significant figures, even when your party membership is close to 10 million. They also show the potential that new parties from Davutoğlu and a second breakaway party led by former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan have to seize part of the AKP’s voter base.

This all amounts to a major headache for Erdoğan, who at the same time is watching as opposition mayors who captured municipalities from his party do their utmost to expose cronyism from decades of AKP rule.

In Istanbul, the main opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu lined up hundreds of vehicles said to have been rented by the previous AKP municipality in a kind of “pyramid scheme”. The vehicles are on display in Yenikapı Square, a meeting ground best known for the rallies held there by Erdoğan.

How will Erdoğan respond? We got a taste on Friday, when the Istanbul provincial head, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison for a series of tweets she had posted years before. Kaftancıoğlu was a driving force in İmamoğlu’s victory.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, fresh from suspending three mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) last month, has hinted with little subtlety that İmamoğlu could face the same fate as the Kurdish mayors.

That is one way for the AKP to tackle its contenders “head on”, and would be true to the party’s recent form. So much so that the EU’s special rapporteur on Turkey, Kati Piri, explicitly warned the AKP not to dismiss İmamoğlu after Soylu’s threat.

More than the warnings of an EU official, if there is anything that will dissuade Erdoğan from this course of action it is the growing level of unrest in Turkey, and the increasingly brave people standing up to voice it – as two remarkable rap songs did on Friday, racking up millions of views within hours.