The Turkish constitution does not allow the president to interfere in the day-to-day running of the country but Recep Tayip Erdogan thinks he is special. His constant interference in government operations has caused deep rifts in the ruling AKP.
Since the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, the AKP has never seen such disarray in its ranks. The close-knit and disciplined structure of the AKP, formed around the unchallenged leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had enabled the AKP to survive against the threats launched by powerful external foes. However, developments over the past three months show the main threat to the existence of the AKP is not external enemies but Erdogan’s desire to preserve the one-man rule system in the party and of course the country.
The distress signals started when Hakan Fidan, Chief of the Turkish intelligence service (MIT), resigned from his post to run as an MP from the AKP for the forthcoming general elections on June 7, 2015. It was obvious that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had asked him to do so as they have been working closely and perhaps the latter wanted him to play a larger role in his government.
Erdogan was ‘very upset’ with Fidan’s decision and on several occasions publicly stated that he did not approve of Fidan’s resignation as chief of MIT. The president argued that the post was vital for running the affairs of the country and it was more important for Fidan—a very trusted confidant of Erdogan—to remain at his existing post. Eventually, in a brief press release on March 7, 2015, Fidan announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy from the forthcoming elections. This was greatly embarrassing for Davutoglu as Erdogan openly interfered with his judgement to bring Fidan into the National Assembly.
Another crisis emerged when Erdogan started to criticise the interest rate policies of the Turkish Central Bank. The interest rate had suddenly skyrocketed in December 2013 when the Gulen movement initiated the notorious plot against the AKP. The Turkish lira experienced a precipitous drop in value vis-à-vis other currencies especially the US dollar. In order to arrest further erosion in its value, the Central Bank increased the interest rate by about 5%. Since then, Erdogan has been pressing the Central Bank, an independent entity, to restore the rates to its previous level. However, the Bank has refused to comply. A frustrated Erdogan lambasted the government especially those ministers who supported the Central Bank’s policy regarding interest rates.
The situation became so critical that Ali Babacan, Minister for overseas affairs at the Central Bank, indicated he would resign from his post in protest over Erdogan’s aggressive demands. The situation was resolved around the same time when Fidan retracted his candidacy. Babacan and head of the Central Bank went to Erdogan’s palace to give him a detailed briefing on the situation. Only then did Erdogan backtrack from his position and approved the Central Bank’s interest rate policy.
There have been other issues also over which tension has arisen between the government of Prime Minister Davutoglu and Erdogan. For example, Erdogan wanted to have regular cabinet meetings in his palace. Davutoglu was not happy with this leading to a brief clash between the two leaders’ close aides. Davutoglu finally succumbed to president’s demand and the cabinet now holds its regular meetings at the palace. Erdogan then blocked Davutoglu’s plan to enact a law that would make it compulsory for local party officials to declare their total assets. Erdogan pressured the government to drop the draft legislation arguing that nobody would then want to enlist for party positions. The president who is called ‘Pasha’ by his critics vetoed a policy that would have led to greater transparency and prevented corruption in party ranks.
However, the main crisis has erupted over Turkey’s peace process with the Kurdish rebels (PKK). In March, Erdogan severely criticised the government for giving too many incentives to the PKK demands in peace negotiations. He went so far as to claim that there is no “Kurdish problem” in Turkey. Erdogan’s statement surprised everyone, as he was the one who had initiated the peace talks when he was prime minister and had given many incentives to the PKK for which he had come under heavy criticism from the deep state and remnants of the old regime. Yet he now saw fit to criticise the government for pursuing a policy he had initiated.
In response to Erdogan’s criticism that many viewed as harsh, cabinet Minister Bulent Arinc, who is the second most senior figure in the AKP after Erdogan, responded audaciously by stating that the president’s remarks were emotional and it was the job of the government to run the country, not that of the president. This was a remarkable stance taken by Arinc against Erdogan’s domineering attitude but it was not the first time. There have been several occasions when he disagreed with Erdogan. Apart from Arinc, no other person in the party including Davutoglu has had the courage to confront Erdogan in such a bold manner.
In response to Arinc’s criticism, Erdogan said he had every right to interfere with the peace process since he was its mastermind. The president’s response, however, was not so harsh compared to what the Mayor of Ankara Melih Gokcek, said. He is also a senior figure in the party and an ally of Erdogan. In his Twitter messages, Gokcek accused Arinc of being a traitor and demanded his immediate resignation. He alleged that Arinc was working for the AKP’s archenemy, the Gulen movement and he should be expelled from the party if he does not resign himself.
This provocative statement did not go unchallenged and prompted a strong response from Arinc. He alluded to Gokcek’s corruption and threatened to expose him. This was an unprecedented pubic quarrelling between senior members of the AKP and reveals the tension within the AKP ranks that has reached boiling point due to Erdogan’s ambition to dominate the party and government even while serving as president. According to the constitution, it is the responsibility of the government led by the prime minister to formulate state policy. The president has no such authority.
Erdogan’s main goal seems to be that he wants to change the constitution and abolish the semi-presidential system. He wants to reinstate his dominance as the President of Turkey. This is the underlying tension between the government and Erdogan.
When Erdogan was inaugurated as president in August 2014, he did not make any secret of the fact that he would be “an active President” by actively participating in managing the affairs of the country. The Turkish political system is semi-presidential and according to the current constitution the head of state is the president. Yet it has been the convention that the president does not get involved in the day to day running of the state. Rather, he plays a passive role by delegating authority to the prime minister and the cabinet.
While Erdogan was running his presidential campaign he made his desire to play an executive role clear by emphasising that the president is no longer elected by the votes in parliament. Instead, he is now elected directly by the votes of the people so “if he is elected to office he would be an active president.” Erdogan’s main goal has been to change the political system of Turkey by ushering a presidential system. Faced with stiff opposition both within and outside his party, he has had to abandon this policy, at least temporarily.
Now Erdogan wants to press ahead with his ambition after June’s general election. However, there is resistance from Davutoglu and other senior members of the AKP who do not want Erdogan to change the system that would make them redundant. On a few rare occasions, Davutoglu vaguely ex-pressed his objection to the presidential system of government. This tension between the government and Erdogan manifests itself in other ways as well but the primary issue is Erdogan’s obsession to be the unchallenged leader of the country.
At the moment, the government camp seems to have succumbed to Erdogan’s aggressive manoeuvres in this dangerous power game within the AKP. The tension, however, will continue and will manifest itself in other forms until one side comes out on top. Which side will ultimately win is difficult to predict but what is certain is that Erdogan will continue to push because he is obsessed with having absolute power and refuses to share it with anyone.
Those who believe he will play by the rules should see the huge palace he has built for himself. No wonder, both friends and foes call him “Pasha.” Perhaps he enjoys the title.