BACKGROUND: The AKP will hold its fourth party congress on September 30. The congress is going to be of critical importance; it will be decisive in drawing up the contours of the party whose leadership Prime Minister Erdoğan is soon going to leave. Erdoğan, who is generally expected to be a candidate in the presidential election in 2014, has made clear that this is the last time that he stands for re-election as party chairman.
The AKP of today is a party Erdoğan dominates; the party leader personally handpicked each and every one of its candidates to the general election in June 2011, which the AKP carried by a landslide, its third consecutive election victory. However, that was not always the case: when the AKP was founded in 2001, it was very much a collective endeavor, and the statutes that the new party adopted reflected the desire of its founders to avoid the organizational sclerosis that had afflicted its predecessor, the Islamist Welfare Party.
Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç were part of a reformist wing that had failed in their attempt to challenge the ossified status quo of the Welfare Party. When they subsequently broke ranks and founded the AKP, they sought to ensure that the new party would not similarly stagnate organizationally; to that end, they adopted the statute that stipulates that party members cannot stand for reelection to parliament in more than three consecutive elections.
That statute basically means that the AKP that emerges from the next general election, in 2015, will look very different from the current party. Seventy present members of parliament are going to be barred from seeking reelection, including some of the most well-known, prominent names, such as Deputy Prime Minister Arınç. The upcoming party congress is expected to adopt a slight change, opening up the possibility for party members to stand for election to parliament in the election thereafter, after a “quarantine” of four years. However, that will not change the fact that the AKP will look very different after the next general election. It is well known that there is a simmering discontent among many of those who will be deprived of the chance to be reelected, but Erdoğan has been adamant about preserving a system that has the obvious benefit of giving the uncontested leader of the party free hands in re-designing it to fit his personal agenda.
Although Erdoğan is about to embark on his final stint as party chairman, he is nonetheless determined to retain control over the party. That is in fact something of a Turkish political tradition; when the late president and Prime Minister Turgut Özal left the leadership of his party, the Motherland Party (ANAP), to become president in 1989, he continued to exercise control over it. As Erdoğan is redesigning the AKP for the future, he does so very much with an eye to his presidential bid; although the president in the Turkish system is far from being a ceremonial figure, the system is nonetheless parliamentarian, making the prime minister the chief executive. Erdoğan has been explicit about his ambition to change this system, making the president the chief executive. However, as Erdoğan lacks the parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution, ensuring that the chairmanship of the AKP – and thus the position as prime minister – is bequeathed to someone that can be trusted to be obedient to the president is imperative. That rules out a “Russian scenario”, in which president and prime minister switch positions; it is not likely that Erdoğan will accept a formula that would allow for President Abdullah Gül to become prime minister while he himself ascends to the presidency. Gül has made clear that he aspires to be a political actor in his own right; however, Gül no longer wields any power in the party.
IMPLICATIONS: There has been some speculation lately that Erdoğan may have chosen Numan Kurtulmuş, the leader of the Party of the Voice of the People (HAS party), as his successor. Erdoğan has invited Kurtulmuş to join the AKP, which the latter is expected to do during the congress. Another party leader to have been invited to the AKP is Süleyman Soylu, the chairman of the Democratic Party (DP), who has already joined the AKP. While Kurtulmuş represents a populist strain of the Islamic movement, Soylu represents the center-right that was the ruling force of Turkey for five decades, before it was swept away by the financial crisis that rocked the country the years before the advent of the AKP. The center-right has by now more or less ceased to exist, but the fact that Erdoğan invited Soylu to the AKP, alongside Kurtulmuş, is nonetheless an expression of his political strategy to assemble all the different strains of Turkish conservatism and nationalism under the roof of the AKP. Erdoğan aims to consolidate the AKP as the party of the right, which would leave only the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) as a potential rival. But there are signs that the MHP is on its way of becoming a junior partner in the vast alliance of the right, dominated totally by the AKP. The MHP has been forthcoming regarding the AKP’s request that the municipal elections scheduled for March 2014 be held in October 2013. Erdoğan’s calculus is that a strong showing in that election, with the AKP receiving over fifty percent of the votes, will boost his chances of pushing through a constitutional amendment on the matter of a presidential system that could then be put to a referendum. Both Kurtulmuş and Soylu have previously expressed their support for such an amendment.
However, it is unlikely that the AKP will be able to repeat its success in the latest general election. Although Erdoğan is making attempts to establish the AKP as the party of the right, reaching out to other representatives of the right like Kurtulmuş Soylu, and Rıfat Hisarcıklıoğlu – the chairman of the Chambers of commerce, who had previously toyed with the idea of entering politics and challenging Erdoğan – he has concurrently alienated other sections of the conservative electorate. As a consequence of Erdoğan’s hard-line nationalist discourse and policies, his popularity has diminished among conservative Kurds. Meanwhile, the rift between the movement of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen and the AKP has not been healed, and it seems unlikely that Erdoğan will continue to enjoy the whole-hearted support – which has been critical for his success so far – of the Gülenists.
CONCLUSIONS: Politics and ideology will not be at the center of the congress of the AKP that starts on September 30. Focus will instead be on the new party organization that Erdoğan is about to bequeath to his successor. The organization is going to be dominated by those close to Erdoğan – his “Istanbul team”, his collaborators from his time as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s – and by those who hail from the Islamic National Outlook movement. The speculations that Numan Kurtulmuş has been chosen to succeed Erdoğan should not be taken seriously; they do not reflect the internal dynamics of the AKP. Kurtulmuş has spent most of his political life as a critic of the AKP; his elevation to party leader would be very unlikely, as those who have been loyal to the party for years would never consent to it.
There are three candidates to succeed Erdogan: Ali Babacan, the minister of economy; foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu; and transportation minister Binali Yıldırım. His successful management of the economy lends credibility to Babacan as a candidate; however, the general view within the AKP is that he lacks the leadership qualities necessary for assembling the party. As recent developments on the foreign policy front have contributed to diminishing the appeal of Davutoğlu, Yıldırım’s name has gained traction. Binali Yıldırım has been the closest collaborator of Erdoğan since the latter’s tenure as mayor of Istanbul.
Although Erdoğan will have taken care to design a party organization that he can – presumably – continue to control from the presidential palace, and although the next leader of the AKP is likely to be a person that does not seek to rival the stature of Erdoğan (assuming that he does succeed in his presidential bid), the most successful party of Turkey nonetheless faces an uncertain future. Its future prospects will not least depend on its ability to secure internal peace; as the escalating Turkish-Kurdish conflict is fraying the social fabric of the country, the major question becomes whether the conservative nationalism that Erdoğan has been promoting as party ideology will ensure that the AKP can indeed control events and retain its grip on power.
M. Kemal Kaya is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".