Yavuz Baydar
Sep 16 2019

Is Erdogan’s ruling party imploding?

Each day that passes, it seems, Turkey’s mighty president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is walking on thinner ice.

The bleak outlook has many factors. The failed regional policy is one of them. The Muslim Brotherhood dream of a regime changer role on Syria has backfired in a triple manner, placing Turkey in a corner before the United States, Russia and Syria.

A deepening economic crisis is another problem. The country has been pushed into a recession, which means rising unemployment is no longer controllable, paving the way for wider social unrest, adding to disgruntlement among various societal segments.

The persistently creeping concern of domestic and international actors is that Erdogan’s regime of super-presidency, introduced after the referendum in April 2017, has failed because of over-ambition coupled with incompetence and administrative illiteracy.

Not much is functioning in Ankara. As a well-informed European source bluntly said: “Erdogan and his team more or less blocked a proper functioning of all the state institutions. Flunkeys and losers are favoured because they are 100% loyal.

“And, to do proper business, everybody is waiting for the day he is gone. They choose to stay in the trenches. Confidence has evaporated. Until that day, we shall see, I am afraid, a free fall.”

Despite the gloomy outlook, Erdogan maintains his posture. Seemingly decisive, without blinking, he continues with what he knows best: Keeping enemies as close as possible, keen on diabolic alliances with extreme nationalists. Regarding the secular main opposition and the Kurdish political movement, he uses a consistent divide-and-rule policy.

He is busy with a multilayered strategy of survival: On one level he is brutally bashing the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). On a second level, he is building a wall between the voter bases of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the HDP by demonising the latter.

On a third level, he shapes a new carrot-and-stick policy based on using Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip vis-a-vis the European Union and the United States by constantly talking about opening the gates to the West or placing 1 million Syrians on the safe zone, fully aware that the anti-refugee sentiments across the political table in Turkey will preserve his popularity at home.

All these calculations have a long-term objective: To keep the options of a “grand national unity coalition” under him as an ultimate survival path.

One developing dynamic casts a shadow over Erdogan’s self-confident image on the surface: It is obvious that the bleeding that started with the loss of municipal elections, especially the farce-like repeat of voting in Istanbul, seems irreversible. Erdogan is watching the once-powerful ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tumble down.

“Erdogan fatigue,” in convergence with the discontent in Turkey, has left his party in convulsions.

This has to do with the perceptions of his decisions as mismanagement and with the fact that many “elders” in the party structure no longer recognise it as it once was. “Democracy, freedom, equality and justice” were the four legs of AKP foundation — still on its programme, which nobody cares about anymore. For an increasing number of party figures on the central and local level, the opposite has happened.

Recent public surveys claim that, for the first time since it attained power in 2002, the AKP has support as low as 30%, falling behind the CHP.

What leaves Erdogan concerned these days is that, if he loses his grip on the party, his days in power may be numbered. Will he overcome the challenge that comes from within? As confidence for him as party leader withers, the brewing rebellion displays signs of powerful erosion.

We see the founding fathers at play in this context: former Turkish President Abdullah Gul and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan are engaged to shape a centre-liberal party, due to be introduced in December.

Bulent Arinc, once a powerful, bold figure in the leadership of AKP, is sending controversial public messages, defending the ousted Kurdish mayor, Ahmet Turk, and leading CHP figures — in defiance of Erdogan’s hard line.

Arinc faces attacks from Erdogan’s camp but it is obvious that he is concerned that all the oppressive measures Erdogan has carried out in the past seven years against the opposition and media may be implemented against Arinc and his entourage.

Then you have former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an overly ambitious latecomer to the AKP, whose dreamy regional policy doctrine led to a big failure. What he does, however, with outspoken rhetoric against his former boss, is helping tear down the pillars of the AKP.

Erdogan has some odds on his side. He knows an early election is not a viable option. None of the current deputies of parliament, including the Kurdish, are willing to push for this. It has mainly to do with conformism: lucrative salaries and privileges lead most of the opposition to a “let’s wait and see” attitude, as the fear of losing seats in a snap poll is very high among the AKP deputies. This helps Erdogan open a channel to a broader coalition alternative.

However, one possibility may spoil the game: What if Babacan and Gul, on one side, and Davutoglu, on the other, convince a small but significant number of AKP deputies to resign and form a separate group in parliament? It may be a game changer that would shake the ground on which Erdogan stands. Nobody knows what he would do but this scenario is gaining traction.

One point is certain: No matter what, the AKP, like late President Turgut Ozal’s ruling Motherland Party, is heading for an implosion.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.