Is Erdogan’s long-ruling AKP doomed to be divided?

The systemic crisis in Turkey displays itself at almost every level and layer of the political, social and economic sphere.

Is the backbone of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) cracking? This is one of the major issues that keep “Erdoganologists” — or, more generally, observers of the Turkish Islamists in power — very busy.

The systemic crisis in Turkey displays itself at almost every level and layer of the political, social and economic sphere with accelerated speed. A strong indicator is the sense of fatigue among the Turkish electorate.

Bekir Agirdir, director of the respected polling firm KONDA, said Turkey is witnessing a political impasse on a grand scale. He said, despite being a stage for six elections and a referendum — some of them hectically implemented — in seven years, Turkey’s agony has not eased after pledges by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On the contrary. Three weeks before critical local elections, voters who are weary of the ballot box and swing between being undecided or not voting at all are, polls indicate, at a record high: nearly 20%.

Many voters belong to the bloc loyal to the charismatic Erdogan and his party. Their growing dismay is due to the rapid decline of Turkey’s economy, hiking inflation and unemployment. Consumer indexes speak volumes for a weakening chain of support among the pious Sunni grass roots of the AKP.

There is another element that feeds concern for Islamists: More voices are heard in pro-government media raising alarm on what they see as an “Eurasianist siege” of Erdogan and his palace.

This is in reference to a large-scale, hard-line, partly pro-Russia clique, which some say is pushing Erdogan to high-risk domestic and foreign policy adventures. Their fear of an electoral backlash is apparent and paranoia is spreading rapidly.

Much of it explains the discreet turmoil among cadres of former AKP ministers, many of them so-called “founding fathers” of the party. Recently, there were widely circulating rumours that new parties would be formed by senior party figures, such as former President Abdullah Gul, former Finance Minister Ali Babacan and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, breaking away from the AKP.

All those names were skilfully purged by Erdogan from the party but remain on standby for a political comeback. Bulent Arinc, another founding member of the AKP, remains critical of such a party breakup.

Once such a plan is set in motion, there is usually no going back. These top figures of the Turkish experiment with political Islam are keen to see how the local elections fare for Erdogan. If anything, we shall see a new turbulence taking shape in April.

Still, there is a strong doubt that these former fellow travellers have a chance in the short or medium term. While it can be true that the Erdogan administration is limping and shows growing failures in governing the land, Turkey’s mighty president has strong control over the security structures and most of the private security companies, which employ approximately 500,000 people and are owned by businessmen loyal to him.

What raises the risks are the questions asked in whispers within the party. The conviction that the presidential palace, the judiciary and parts of the media, which are under the control of the “Eurasianists,” fear that, if Erdogan loses a considerable number of votes, his ally, nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli, may take steps to deepen the crisis, such as forcing a general election.

In any case, Islamists within the AKP dread that what happened to the Gulenists — former allies of Erdogan — in terms of oppression, jailing and purge, may target them next.

Erdogan may emerge as the victor from the local elections because he has the skills to change his politics. So far, he has acted in unison with circles that promote a deviation from traditional alliances such as NATO but none of this means the power struggle in Turkey will be over. Far from it.

Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018. 

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.