Turkey: old friends threaten Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reign
When Ahmet Davutoglu was forced out as Turkey’s prime minister in May 2016, he pledged eternal loyalty to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath,” vowed Mr Erdogan’s long-serving foot soldier, despite the well-known tensions between the two. “No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”
Fast forward three years and the bookish, bespectacled academic has broken that silence to emerge as an outspoken critic of Mr Erdogan’s government. On September 13, he resigned from the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) after being threatened with expulsion by the group he once chaired.
Mr Davutoglu, 60, is one of several former ministers to have quit the party in recent months. And is leading one of the two factions plotting to form their own movements to challenge Mr Erdogan. The second is led by Ali Babacan, a 52-year-old former economy minister and deputy prime minister, who has the backing of another one-time Erdogan ally, the former president Abdullah Gul.
The veteran politicians are expected to officially launch new parties before the end of the year.
Senior figures in both camps say they have been driven by growing alarm at what they see as Mr Erdogan’s increasingly oppressive tactics towards opponents, his harsh nationalistic rhetoric, economic mismanagement, disregard for the rule of law, and his apparent unwillingness to listen to those urging him to change course.
“We thought maybe he would get the message,” says a senior AKP dissident. “But there were always excuses . . . ‘If we don’t do [something] now, we will regret it in the future’.”
The splintering is significant not only for the unprecedented break that it would represent in the AKP ranks, but also for the potential damage it could inflict on Mr Erdogan’s 17-year dominance of the national political stage.
In a country where the voting population can be divided into two roughly equal blocks that are pro- and anti-Erdogan, even shaving a small chunk off the AKP alliance — which won 52.6 per cent in local elections in March — could radically alter the political landscape.
“Every vote they can collect can change the balance of power,” says Ibrahim Uslu, a Turkish pollster. “For that reason, these new parties are the most important dynamic in Turkish politics.”
At political rallies, Mr Erdogan likes to recite the words of his favourite Turkish folk song. “We walked together, along these roads,” he tells the crowds, transforming the love song into a paean to political solidarity. But, as the Turkish journalist Baris Terkoglu recently pointed out, it is becoming harder for AKP to sing the song together. Very few of the people who formed the party with Mr Erdogan in 2001 are still by his side.
Discontent in the upper ranks of the ruling party is long standing. Former ministers say there were signs as long as a decade ago that the then prime minister was unwilling to listen to them and hostile to criticism. The trend accelerated, they say, as Mr Erdogan faced a series of challenges threatening his leadership, including the mass protests that gripped the country in 2013, a corruption investigation later that year and the violent attempted coup of July 2016.
The rise of Mr Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, who was last year placed in charge of the country’s economy, has been another key point of tension. He and his powerful network of friends and allies have become a lightning rod for criticism within the party.
Clashes between Mr Albayrak’s faction and Mr Davutoglu hastened the former prime minister’s 2016 departure. In recent years, the son-in-law has had run-ins with the interior minister Suleyman Soylu and, in a conflict that became public only last week, with justice minister Abdulhamit Gul. Many in the AKP see Mr Albayrak, 41, as a corrosive force in the ruling party, and resent the sweeping influence that he has accrued, which extends far beyond his brief as treasury and finance minister.
The president’s control over the levers of state reached a zenith in 2018, when he took the helm of a system of governance that abolished the role of prime minister and concentrated power in his hands. His grip on the AKP has mirrored his control of the state.
“The party lost its internal checks and balances,” says one former minister who, for the time being, remains an AKP member. “Now it’s just one man.”
It was the painful defeat in local elections that finally triggered the malcontents to act, after years of grumbling behind the scenes. For the first time since sweeping to power in 2002, the AKP lost control of the country’s biggest and most important cities in March, as voters punished it for a bruising economic downturn that followed a currency crisis last year, and pacts between opposition parties paid off.
Mr Davutoglu responded to the poll defeats by publishing a scathing 4,000-word critique of the AKP’s direction, warning that the party and the country could not be abandoned to a “narrow and self-seeking group who have become slaves to their ambition”.
Two months later, Mr Babacan broke cover, resigning from the party that he helped found. “In recent years, deep differences have emerged between the policies pursued in a number of fields and my own principles, values and ideas,” he said, adding that Turkey needed a “brand new vision”.
Mr Babacan and Mr Davutoglu talk about the need to restore sound economic management, freedom of speech and the rule of law, and have suggested that they would like to find a way to restore the power of parliament.
Yet the two men are targeting different audiences. Mr Davutoglu is “trying to appeal to the most conservative sections of the population”, says Ayse Ayata, a professor of political science at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. Mr Babacan’s faction, by contrast, is appealing to a “globalised AKP” or the “bourgeoisie”, she says. “It’s two different styles and two different sections of the population.”
Mr Babacan is eager for his new party not to be seen as a collection of disgruntled former AKP figures. In a recent interview with the opposition newspaper Karar, he said that he wanted to recruit a talented team made up of “many different voices and different segments” of Turkish society. He has resisted overtures from Mr Davutoglu for the two men to work together.
Analysts see Mr Babacan, who left government in 2015, as the candidate with the better prospect of success. After last year’s almost 30 per cent fall in the lira against the dollar, many families have been confronted with high inflation and unemployment as the country entered its first recession in a decade. The former economy minister is seen as a steward of the good times in the country. Mr Davutoglu, by contrast, is widely associated with Turkey’s interventionist approach to the war in Syria, and the millions of refugees who have subsequently fled to Turkey.
“Their time in government works in favour of Babacan but against Davutoglu,” says Can Selcuki, of Istanbul Economics research, a consultancy.
The odd thing about the urgent push by both groups to launch in the coming months is that, in theory, there are no elections in Turkey until 2023. Yet, in a country that has had 14 elections or referendums over the past 12 years, some find it hard to believe that it will be four years until the next one.
Efforts to revive growth by turning on the supply of credit are seen by some as a signal that Mr Erdogan could call an early vote, but many economists believe the Turkish president will struggle to match the fast-paced growth that powered previous AKP electoral victories.
A wild card is Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the ultranationalist MHP that has supported the AKP government for the past three years. Mr Bahceli has previous form in collapsing governments, a key factor in Mr Babacan’s decision to launch now, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Many analysts are sceptical that either of the breakaway figures could win a presidential contest. Their vagueness over strategy and political aims has sparked a string of unanswered questions: do they aim to join the alliance of opposition parties that has coalesced in recent years? Would they support an umbrella candidate for president, such as Ekrem Imamoglu, the new Istanbul mayor? Could they team up behind a joint opposition pledge to restore the old parliamentary system?
Despite the questions, Erdogan supporters view the rebellions as a threat. “If Babacan gets 10 per cent, we will get 35 per cent and Imamoglu will become president,” says an AKP official. “People in the party need to stop complaining.”
Onur Erim, a former AKP adviser who retains close ties to the ruling party, says that neither Mr Babacan nor Mr Davutoglu can compete with the charisma of the Turkish president, who — despite everything — still has millions of adoring supporters. “They may be fine technocrats,” he says. “But I don’t think these guys can move crowds.”
That view is echoed by Alan Makovsky, a Turkey expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think-tank. “I don’t see either of them really registering,” he says.
Mr Makovsy is perplexed by rumours of early elections, arguing that the parliamentary arithmetic makes it almost impossible for the opposition to force a vote even if the new parties persuaded some MPs to defect. “The next election isn’t until 2023. I don’t see how we would get to one before then,” he says. “They [Babacan and Davutoglu] could be not only yesterday’s news but ancient history by the time 2023 rolls around.”
The new parties will also have to contend with a political climate that makes many people think twice about openly criticising Mr Erdogan. Selim Temurci, a former AKP Istanbul chairman who resigned alongside Mr Davutoglu, says that fear is a significant constraint. “When we speak with [AKP figures] one by one, they agree with us,” he says. “But many are afraid.”
Mr Erdogan himself has swung between dismissing the prospects of new parties and threatening them. At a meeting of party officials in July, he did both at once. “We’ve seen many people break away from us and form new parties. If I ask you about them now, you won’t even be able to remember their names,” he said, before adding: “Those who take part in this kind of treachery will pay a heavy price.”
It remains possible that, in the face of the brewing rebellion, Mr Erdogan will adapt and change tack. The 65-year-old president has often emerged from tight spots by being pragmatic and flexible. Some analysts also suspect he may even seek to change the system brought in last year that requires a presidential candidate to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote to win. That could make it easier for him to secure another term.
But some of the AKP discontents are convinced that, given his strained ties with the west, the struggling economy and now a fraying party, Mr Erdogan has run out of road. They believe that, after almost two decades, many people will be surprised by how quickly the AKP could unravel.
“There are lots of perceived loyalists,” says the senior AKP dissident. “But these are not loyalists. They are just there because [Erdogan] is in power. When he loses power he’s going to be very lonely. I don’t think he realises that.”
Politics: can AKP exiles work with opposition groups?
One of the biggest questions facing the AKP breakaway factions led by Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan is whether or not they would be willing to work with other opposition parties — and if the opposition would have them.
Turkish politics was shaken up by a 2018 law that opened the door to electoral alliances, brought in so that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could join forces with the ultranationalist MHP to prop up his flagging support. But Turkey’s previously fragmented opposition has also taken advantage of the new rule. Having teamed up to campaign for a No vote in a controversial 2017 referendum on enhancing the president’s powers, they officially joined forces in elections the following year. The alliance was a key factor in opposition victories in Istanbul, Ankara and other big cities in March’s local elections.
It is an eclectic alliance that combines a staunchly secular party with an ultraconservative Islamist one, a rightwing Turkish nationalist group and a leftwing organisation that is focused on the rights of the country’s Kurdish minority.
What unites them is their opposition to Mr Erdogan, and what they see as his erosion of Turkish democracy. All are critical of the powerful new presidential system of governance that came into force last year.
It is unclear, however, if the alliance would welcome one or both of the AKP splinter groups. Established opposition parties may be suspicious of the newcomers, or worry that their association with the ruling party could tarnish them.
Already there are contrasting views about who, if anyone, could run as a unity candidate against Mr Erdogan in a presidential race. Some analysts believe that either Mr Babacan or his patron Abdullah Gul, a former president, would fit the bill. Others think that Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, is the only viable option.