BACKGROUND: On September 12, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its fifth regular congress in Ankara. The decisions that were taken during the congress are destined to leave a deep imprint on the evolution of the AKP.
The party’s long string of electoral successes was broken at the ballot on June 7, when the AKP suffered its first ever electoral setback in a general election. The setback further diminished the already diminutive political stature of party leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. For the embattled party leader, struggling to be taken seriously, the 5th congress offered the opportunity to get some kind of personal hold over the party; Davutoğlu did try his hand at exercising a semblance of leadership, but his effort quickly came to naught.
Davutoğlu tried to put his stamp on the executive committee of the party; the initial list that he assembled included names like Lütfü Elvan, Ali Sarıkaya and Ziya Altunyıldız, who are close to him. Davutoğlu meanwhile excluded names like Binali Yıldırım, who are close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That attempt quickly backfired. Upon being informed of the list for the party executive that Davutoğlu had assembled, Erdoğan responded with a counter-attack: two days before the congress convened, the president gave a go-ahead for the collection of signatures in support of the candidature of Binali Yıldırım as party leader. Faced with the prospect of being challenged as party leader by Yıldırım – a contest that Davutoğlu would certainly have lost – he quickly retracted and instead submitted a list of nominees for the executive committee that was to Erdoğan’s liking. The picture that emerged from the 5th congress of the AKP was to be totally reflective of Erdoğan’s preferences.
The list for the executive committee of the AKP comprises fifty names. Of these none is known to be close to Davutoğlu. Nor did the nominal leader of the party succeed in having senior names such as Ali Babacan, Beşir Atalay and Mehmet Şimşek elected to the executive committee as he had wished. A similar process took place when Davutoğlu put together the ministers of his care-taker government (see September 2 issue of the Turkey Analyst).
The tug of war that broke out over the composition of the executive committee of the AKP served to bring a struggle that has been ongoing in the party for some time to the surface. In this struggle, Erdoğan and his team have prevailed over the followers of Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç. Indeed, the more significant aspect of the defeat that Davutoğlu suffered over the composition of the executive committee was that it above all sealed the defeat of the Gül and Arınç fractions.
Davutoğlu has by now clearly demonstrated that he lacks leadership skills, and is hardly taken seriously as party leader or prime minister. Gül is a wholly different matter. It was important for Erdoğan to make sure to neutralize any possible threat that could emerge from Gül’s quarters, taking measures that are intended in advance to thwart any possible maneuvers from the latter. That is what the composition of the executive committee is designed to achieve. Gül’s and Arınç’s fractions are now effectively purged from the AKP’s leadership.
IMPLICATIONS: The fact that the AKP has become a deeply divided party – as its 5th congress served to demonstrate – does not imply the existence of any deep ideological differences between the fractions (Erdoğan’s on one hand and Gül’s and Arınç’s fractions on the other hand) that have been fighting to gain control of the party. In one respect, there is however a substantial difference, which concerns the stewardship of the economy: those close to Erdoğan have been harshly critical of Gül, Babacan and Şimşek; these names have on occasion been denounced as the stooges of international capital. Indeed, the economic policies that bore the mark of Babacan and Şimşek have been denounced as “non-national.” This is a criticism that mirrors Erdoğan’s attacks against the interest rate policies of Turkey’s central bank, which have been geared toward preserving Turkey as an attractive destination for foreign capital.
However, with the exception of the divisions over part of the economic policies, the divisions within the AKP are more about style and turf than about ideas and substance. The “opposition” to Erdoğan – Gül, Arınç and now Davutoğlu – has never really challenged the drift of the AKP since 2011. The more pronounced Islamic discourse and practices of the party and the government, for example, has not been met with opposition from these names. It is true that both Gül and Arınç have on occasion – notably during the violent suppression of the Gezi protests in 2013 – expressed reservations over Erdoğan’s stridency. But as Etyen Mahçupyan, Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s former chief advisor recently told the Turkey Analyst, “There is some unease within the Islamic movement over Erdoğan’s tone and leadership style, but there is no political and ideological disagreement with him.” Indeed, Davutoğlu can lay claim to being the “ideologue” of the Islamist foreign policy that the AKP has conducted. The fact that he has – totally unsuccessfully – tried to carve out an independent power base for himself does not in any way translate into a disavowal of the policies that he has partly inspired and enthusiastically executed.
Ultimately, the AKP’s future evolution is going to be determined by the results of the November 1 general election. In the case that the AKP once again fails to secure a majority in parliament, the divisions within the party are very likely going to intensify. And so far, there are no indications that the AKP can look forward to an election that will dramatically reverse and ameliorate its fortunes. In that case, the AKP may risk a split, even though the “opponents” – notably Bülent Arınç – have clearly expressed that they are not going to seek up any “new address.”
What is perhaps more likely than a party split is that the fractions that were excluded at the 5th party congress are going to be re-embraced and restored to their former prominence. Speaking to the Turkey Analyst, Mahçupyan predicted that “Gül will be invited back in case the AKP suffers electoral losses.” What he suggested was that Gül is being kept in “reserve” to replace Davutoğlu as party leader.
CONCLUSIONS: The struggle that has been raging within the AKP is exclusively a struggle over power and control, not about the ideological direction of the party. With the 5th party congress, Erdoğan masterminded the exclusion of the other “founding fathers” from the leadership of the party. At least for the time being, the AKP is now a one-man party. The 5th party congress also finished off Davutoğlu as a serious leader; there is absolutely no respect left for him within the party. Erdoğan allowed Davutoğlu to retain what is to all intents and purposes a nominal leadership – and there is every reason to assume that this is going to be a short-lived arrangement – but only after the latter had acquiesced to all of the demands of the real leader of the party concerning the composition of the party executive committee.
In fact, the AKP is at an impasse: those within the party who are dissatisfied with Erdoğan’s heavy-handedness and who are disgruntled over being denied the possibility to wield power don’t have any different ideological/political alternative to present. Even if the disgruntled were to be restored to power within the AKP after another electoral setback, or if they were to split from the party, they would not usher in anything new. That means that the cadres of the AKP are unlikely to be the ones that midwife the renewal of Turkish politics, which has been occurring almost periodically after a decade or so. If anything, the latest congress of the AKP has demonstrated that these cadres are by and large a spent force.
M.K. Kaya is an Ankara-based independent researcher.
Image attribution: www.hurriyetdailynews.com, accessed on Sept 25th, 2015