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ANALYSIS: Erdogan reigns supreme, wearing a crown of thorns

Turkey's president gains executive control of the country when he becomes AKP's leader on Sunday. Its problems are now all on his head
Erdogan faces myriad problems within the AKP and the country he now controls (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - The Turkish president's anointment as the ruling party's leader on Sunday could be a poisoned chalice - no longer shall Recep Tayyip Erdogan be able to scapegoat the system or the failure of others during a time of internal party turmoil, waning popularity and national crisis.

Erdogan will be reinstated on Sunday as the chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) at its extraordinary congress, making him the sole executive power in the country, two years before his new executive presidency system takes effect.

The shift to an executive presidency system, which was endorsed by a narrow winning margin with 51.4 percent support in a referendum on 16 April, abolishes a requirement for the president to be neutral and allows political affiliation.

The amendment allowing the president to re-establish political ties was one of three articles to take immediate effect in the 18-article amendment package. The rest will gradually be implemented over two years.   

Erdogan and the AKP wasted no time in officially re-establishing the relationship, even though Erdogan had always remained the person with the final say on most party matters despite taking over the presidency in 2014.

Erdogan was reinstated as a party member on 2 May as soon as the referendum result was officially validated.

Binali Yildirim, the prime minister, will meanwhile be given the new position of "chairman's representative," which is higher than that of deputy chairman and will allow him to represent Erdogan in parliament.

It is a reward for his loyalty and a nod to the fact his ministerial role is effectively rendered powerless before its abolition in 2019.

Binali Yildirim's ministerial role is effectively powerless (Reuters)

Restoring balance 

But all of this comes at a time when the AKP is facing internal turmoil. Talk in Ankara's political corridors is of major reshuffles in the cabinet and drastic changes to various internal bodies as soon as Erdogan takes over.

On present levels of popularity, the AKP's candidate for president, almost certainly Erdogan, will face an anxious time in the crucial 2019 election.

However, Hilal Kaplan, a columnist at the pro-government Sabah newspaper, told Middle East Eye that Erdogan is a natural political risk-taker and not taking over at this point also represented a risk.

He is the only one who can restore balance to the party

- Hilal Kaplan, columnist

"There is political risk either way," she said. "He is the only one who can restore balance to the party and implement any required change.

"Going to the referendum was a risk too, but Erdogan did not shy away despite polls suggesting a tight race."  

Serkan Demirtas, the Ankara representative and bureau chief of Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News, believes that Erdogan's rush to take over the party was in part triggered by the narrow margin of victory in the April referendum.

"Of course there is a risk with taking over the party at this moment, but it is primarily to stop the party's slide that Erdogan wants to step in right away," he said.

"Erdogan sees the AKP as his main instrument of power. He also sees it as the most important instrument to implement what he has in mind leading up to the critical 2019 election."

Erdogan and wife Emine, look over supporters during the presidential referendum (Reuters)

Waning support

Although the AKP has yet to decisively lose an election, it has not performed spectacularly like it did during its early years. Even Erdogan's close circle attributes its narrow wins to an incompetent and almost non-existent opposition.

Aydin Unal, one of Erdogan's speech writers and an MP, said the AKP's biggest test was the "race against itself," in a column in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.   

"The AKP has always replenished ... and disappointed those who said the party was finished. On 21 May it will show Turkey and the world that it is and will remain to be this country's sole hope," wrote Unal.

The AKP, however, is riven with divisions never before witnessed in its 16-year history. One of the most public is the split between the party's original Islamist conservative supporters and a more recently emerged group of people driven primarily by a zealous support for Erdogan.

The rift became so public that Erdogan himself felt the need to comment on it twice.

It is not as if we are looking for a disciple for a dervish lodge

- Recep Tayyip Erdogan

On 1 May, in an apparent dig at the Islamist camp, Erdogan said: "It is being said that Islamists are being thrown out, non-Islamists are being brought in.

"In the first place it is wrong to distinguish between Islamist and non-Islamist when it comes to matters of a political party. It is not as if we are looking for a disciple for a dervish lodge."

On 4 May, this time seemingly hitting out at the other camp, which often invokes his name while attacking opponents, Erdogan told a youth festival: "In recent days another pointless discussion has been started in my and my party's name. Dear youth, the presidential spokesperson speaks.

"Therefore, no one else has the right to speak on my behalf or in my stead. Whoever does so is being seditious."

The Islamist conservative camp might be on the wane inside the AKP, but it represents a major section of the party's grassroots supporters.

An indication of their displeasure was perhaps to be found in the outcome of the 16 April referendum results in major urban centres, particularly Istanbul.

Protesters demonstrate against the presidential referendum result (Reuters)

Fresh blood

Conservative Istanbul districts such as Fatih and Uskudar voted against the shift to the executive presidency system.

Kaplan believes Erdogan is the only person capable of restoring balance and overseeing changes required in the party.

"This congress is all about change and fresh blood. Erdogan, with his deep emotional bonds to the party, is the only one who can manage this process," said Kaplan.

This congress is all about change and fresh blood

- Hilal Kaplan, columnist

The country's stalled economy is another major and decisive issue Erdogan will need to address if he doesn't want to see his own political capital diminish.

Erdogan and his team of late have been lauding their accomplishments when it comes to massive infrastructure projects, but double digit inflation and unemployment have dented public confidence.

According to Kaplan, the economy became the priority for Erdogan and his team as soon as the referendum concluded.

"Looking at his foreign travel destinations like India and China, we can see that economic and trade ties are a priority," she said.  

It is perhaps with knowledge of the difficulty of the challenge facing him that Erdogan reportedly vetoed plans to see him enter the party congress to the accompaniment of a Turkish song with the lyrics "the legend returns".

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