Turkey’s ruling party risks sacrificing its unity for Istanbul

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in need of symbols of unity since March 31, when the ruling party and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) partners lost four of the country’s give biggest cities including Istanbul and Ankara in the municipal elections.

The narrative since then has been of growing fractures within the AKP’s own ranks, a situation sources in the party have blamed on its alliance with the MHP and the fractious and polarising rhetoric the pair adopted leading up to the local elections.

So, some may view the timing of the Grand Çamlıca Mosque’s completion as a thing of providence: images of crowds of faithful in the mosque kicked the week off on the covers of the pro-government newspapers Star and Yeni Şafak, and again graced front pages on Saturday, the day after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan formally opened it after Friday prayers.

The opening served both as a feather in the cap of a party that insists the long list of megaprojects it has overseen is a mark of its success, and as an opportunity for Erdoğan to gather a strong show of public support on a week that has been rife with speculation about potential splits in the AKP.

It’s little wonder reports on that front have been conspicuously absent from front pages. The point has been hammered home ad infinitum in press reports about Turkey, but World Press Freedom Day on May 3 presented another fitting opportunity to repeat that the country’s domestic press is anything but.

A report published on the day by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Turkish independent outlet Bianet detailed one major facet of how that freedom has been curtailed: the client network the government has formed out of businesses that own the vast majority of the country’s media outlets by audience figures. Another, the simple matter of legal repression of journalists, was illustrated by reports that 74 journalists have been sentenced this year. They have joined over a hundred imprisoned colleagues, including those whose appeals were rejected by the Constitutional Court this week.

That meant that on Monday, while Star and Yeni Şafak focused on the crowds in Çamlıca, only secularist Sözcü led with the bombshell that Binali Yıldırım, the AKP former prime minister who ran as the party’s candidate for Istanbul on March 31, had declared his distaste for the ongoing fight for an election he said had already been lost.

This was a brave statement from the yes man who was promoted to a prime minister’s role vacated by another party stalwart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and who went on to campaign for a constitutional referendum in 2017 that made his new position defunct.

Davutoğlu, too, continued edging towards an open challenge to his president and party chairman this week, after publishing a long-winded Facebook “manifesto” in late April that enunciated the intra-party unease at the AKP-MHP alliance.

This week Davutoğlu was conveniently on hand on a bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul to save a man decked out in an AKP bib and Turkish flag who was apparently about to jump.

The symbolism was far from subtle, and the spectacle was already tired out from two previous “rescues” on the same bridge by Erdoğan and Yıldırım. The display neither received nor warranted serious attention from the press.

Nevertheless, it was a sign that things are afoot among the ruling party’s former leaders that have long been rumoured but have never materialised.

It could be yet another false alarm after years of speculation around supposed preparation by former president Abdullah Gül or another veteran of the AKP to launch a new party to challenge the old.

But this was the subject that since the election has captured the attention of some of the country’s well-known journalists, and having waited years for one new party that could chip away at the AKP’s massive voter base, some say two are on the way.

One report on Wednesday went so far as to list Davutoğlu’s “A-Team”, consisting of side-lined old hands at the AKP including Numan Kurtuluş, Beşir Atalay, Hüseyin Çelik Şamil Tayyar, Ahmet Başçı and Selçuk Özdağ, and even Mehmet Görmez, a former president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

The second party is said to be coalescing around Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister who has received significant credit for engineering the economic successes of the AKP’s earlier phases. The most recent talk suggests another respected economist, former AKP finance minister Mehmet Şimşek, could take Babacan’s side alongside Gül.

So, despite the president’s recent talk of a “Turkey alliance” and conciliatory rhetoric at the official inauguration of the Grand Çamlıca Mosque on Friday, the ruling party was already destined to go into Ramazan next week with serious splits showing.

Whether this informed Erdoğan’s decision on Saturday to throw his weight fully behind the demands to cancel elections in Istanbul is impossible to say.

But if the latest shove from Erdoğan is sufficient to secure a re-run from the Supreme Election Council – which insiders this week reported was already leaning toward cancelling the election due to “extreme political pressure” – the price may well be fracturing the unity of the ruling party, a feature that has always been one of its great strengths.

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