The AKP’s renewal: Spring cleaning a burning house

Worried about something he calls “metal fatigue”, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been driving a campaign to renew his Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

Erdoğan has sought to replace a swathe of leading figures in provincial branches of the AKP as well as a number of mayors. All submitted, with varying degrees of resistance, to the hangman’s noose. Among them were the mayors of Turkey’s two largest cities; Istanbul’s Kadir Topbaş and Ankara’s Melih Gökçek.

One reason changes are deemed necessary is the result of a referendum in April this year, in which Erdoğan’s desire to alter the constitution and remove checks and balances to his power only just scraped through. And that despite the utterly unfair conditions in which the referendum was held and plausible claims of vote-rigging.

The result demonstrated that Turks are growing weary of the government’s antics. So, the bout of Spring-cleaning is presented as a means of restoring trust and enthusiasm.

In parallel with the public rationale, the “renewal” also offers an opportunity for Erdoğan to do what he does best – consolidate power. The departing mayors and officials are being replaced by those whose fitness for the job depends on little more than their loyalty to Erdoğan. 

It won’t work.

Another way to think about the AKP’s shake-up is as a squabble over resources.

Most of those who joined the AKP for ideological reasons have long since been pushed out or had their heads turned. Only a few, whose outlook matches the path Erdoğan is plotting, are still in the game for ideological reasons. Still others, perhaps even a majority, aim merely to keep their heads down and pay the bills. Beneath their nodding acquiescence lies fear. Others are mercenaries, prepared to vociferously support any ideology that Erdoğan might espouse, but not for free.

The problem here is that as the regime’s network of patronage expands, taking in more and more of Turkey’s economy, that very economy is flagging. It has long been obvious that the environmentally disastrous mega-projects upon which economic hopes are pinned, such as a planned canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, are aptly called “crazy”. They are, in many ways, little more than thinly disguised schemes to channel money into the pockets of Erdoğan’s cronies. 

To cut a long story short, there are more and more snouts crowding around a shrinking trough. This is a recipe for fierce infighting, the opposite of what is intended by the “renewal” process.

A further problem with Erdoğan’s plan is the mess left behind by those displaced. Topbaş may have left Istanbul rather deeper in debt than he claimed in his valedictory speech. The stench in Ankara, where Gökçek was finally prized from the seat to which he has been stuck fast since time immemorial, is likely to be overpowering. So any steps aimed ostensibly at regaining public trust may backfire. 

Whether Erdoğan is aware of these likely consequences is anyone’s guess. If he genuinely expects to reawaken the public’s confidence in him, he is in for a nasty surprise. 

But he may still retain some of his old instincts, albeit with a hardened heart, and be willing to plough ahead regardless, calculating that it will not be long before the “national will” becomes so clarified and concentrated in his person that it is no longer necessary to resort to such crude measures as the ballot box. 

Whatever happens, the AKP’s ‘renewal’ process will only increase Turkey’s general sense of fatigue. It will not lead to a rebirth of justice, nor will it improve the living standards or happiness of Turkey’s population. That is because the fatigue is not about metal or springs but about Erdoğan himself, the unhappy state he has fathered. 

As this happens, Erdoğan’s response will be predictable: more of the same. 

If Turkey is finally reduced to rubble and Erdoğan, in surveying the ruins, cannot find any more resistance to crush or dissent to silence, cannot find a single life that has not been brought into alignment with his tastes and cannot find any more power to grab, then he will notice that he has no power, that he is the undisputed master of a charred shell.  

He will be left with nothing to offer but intangibles; himself, God and independence from perceived tutelage. None of these put food on the table, or keep the house warm. We are nearly there already. When this fails to appeal, as it inevitably will, he will do just as he has done before: he will turn on the very people who have slavishly followed his dictates, denouncing them as unworthy of him, as traitors. In short, he will find the only person who has not let him down is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

When you are such a great man, the world is a lonely place.