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What future for the Erdogan-AKP dynamic?

If the hugely popular Erdogan becomes president, what would this mean for the ruling Justice and Development party's political support?
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gesturing as he addresses an AKP rally (AFP)

The Gezi Park protests, which started on 28 May 2013, represented one of the biggest challenges of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decade-long tenure. Subsequently, the fallout from one of the most significant nationwide disquiet in decades has precipitated a fierce national struggle, threatening the leading party's very future.

On 17 December 2013, six months after the sit-in at the park, Turkish police detained key allies of the prime minister, including a municipal leader, the sons of three ministers and the chief executive of the state-owned Halkbank, on allegations of corruption, fraud and money laundering. Three ministers were forced to resign and a fourth was discharged in a cabinet reshuffle. The corruption allegations were made after leaked audio recordings emerged on social media.

Erdogan claimed that the wiretapping of phones of high-profile officials was part of a staged plot made against his government, and was led by the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers, the Hizmet movement. He retaliated by sacking hundreds of police and prosecutors linked to Gulen, while Turkey’s courts blocked access to Twitter after Erdogan vowed to “wipe out” the service. The constitutional court later lifted the ban, however, calling it unlawful.

Voices of the Turkish public

Despite the rift between Gulen and Erdogan, along with serious allegations of corruption and a crackdown on freedoms, the Justice and Development party (AKP) maintained a strong hold over the elections. AKP’s share of the ballot in 30 March local elections was 43.3 percent.

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“The perception of Erdogan as the leader of the people has not changed in Turkey; AKP has the support of 50 percent of the public and it is impossible to change their opinions,” said Ufuk Ulutas, director of foreign policy studies at SETA Foundation, a thinktank for political, economic andhd social research, closely linked to the government.

According to Ulutas, AKP constituents will always support the party despite any claims that are made, while nationalists, secularists and Kemalists will support the opposition parties, CHP and MHP, since they represent their ideologies. Like many, Ulutas believes that the Turkish public vote according to "identity politics and will always support the party that reflects their ideological and worldviews".

He argues that the demand for freedom, democratisation and human rights are not the root of the opposition against Erdogan and the AKP. Instead, “The opposition is ideological in its stance and has been far from supportive of the Kurdish peace process and Armenian rights initiated by AKP."

"They [the opposition] do not truly support freedoms; the opposition strongly retaliated against the lifting of the scarf ban,” explains Ulutas.

Meanwhile, other analysts point to the economic stability and progress that Turkey has enjoyed under Erdogan as a factor in AKP's continued popularity.

“The majority of Turks compare Erdogan’s government with previous ones and in their eyes Erdogan’s reign is far better,” says Taptuk Emre Erkoc, Director of the Turkey Institute and visiting fellow of political science at Queen Mary University.

Furthermore, not all members of Gulen's Hizmet movement shifted away from AKP in their vote. The Hizmet movement is an influential social movement with a strong educational and economic base, which has supported AKP’s political Islam for more than a decade.

"While the Gulen movement is a strong one, it does not have a single political opinion. According to surveys of Zaman's readership (most of whom are Gulenists), 50 percent of the movement still voted for AKP in the elections," says Kerim Balci, chief editor of the Turkish Review.

Throughout the past year, though, visible and more vocal opposition to the AKP has surfaced, showing a heightened sense of polarisation throughout the country. 

Although the AKP won the elections, analysis of the results shows that support for the AKP dropped from 49.8 percent to 43.3 percent, while the MHP increased its tally from  approximately 13 percent to 18 percent. The MHP, another right-wing party, seems to have taken the vote of disappointed AKP constituents, while the left-leaning CHP nearly stagnated at 25.6 percent. Taken as a collective, the votes for the opposition outweigh those for the AKP, however they have not been able to provide an alternative government.

Kerem Oktem, mercator IPC fellow at Istanbul's Sabanci University and research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, agrees that the opposition "although sizeable is weak and lacks the ability to provide an alternative vision to that of AKP".

An internal divide within the AKP?

Despite the AKP not being challenged at the ballot box, there have been speculations of growing dissent against Erdogan from within the party's ranks. This perception is partly built on President Abdullah's Gul’s statements, criticising Erdogan's rhetoric, and on the resignation of parliamentary members linked to Gulen, including Idris Bal and Hakan Sukur.

On 2 May, the AKP announced its maintenance of its three-term limit for its deputies, providing what are considered clear signals that its leader Erdogan will be running the first direct presidential elections in August.

Erdogan, who is also the chairman of the AKP, was elected as mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He established AKP along with Abdullah Gul in 2001. He quickly won wide public support for his party's tangible development of the country’s economy, and its improvement in civil services and standards of living.

A public opinion poll conducted by the Objective Research Council, a Turkish institution, indicated that more than 50 percent of the Turkish public would elect Erdogan as the next president.

While the opposition increasingly perceives Erdogan as an authoritarian ruler, the “majority of the Turkish public do not equate Erdogan to Putin or Mubarak, but instead perceive his rhetoric as akin to Turkish politicians and what they call the ‘Ankara attitude'”, said Erkoc.

Likewise, Balci argues: "The Turkish grassroots are akin to a sultan-like leadership of Erdogan. It is only within the intellectual and journalist circles, who are widely disconnected from the public, that you can find real opposition to Erdogan's approach.”

Therefore, both supporters and the opposition believe that Erdogan is likely to win the presidential elections, but many ask what will happen next.  

President Gul, known for his more democratic approach, and at times voicing his disagreement with Erdogan's rhetoric and decisions, was seen as a potential alternative to Erdogan.

“There is a sizeable number of party members in AKP who support Gul’s more democratic approach, they will not however go head to head with Erdogan. It is more likely that Erdogan will take the presidency and will then be isolated by his party,” explains Oktem.

Gul has been quoted as saying that he will not assume any political role for the near future, putting to rest speculation that Gul and Erdogan will be competing against each other. 

The current parliamentary system grants limited powers to the president. Some analysts expect that if Erdogan wins the elections, he will repeat the Russian scenario of Putin and Medvedev by choosing Gul or another caretaker prime minister to support him. A more likely path, but more long-term project since Erdogan will need the votes in the legislature to usher in a presidential system, is that he will try to transform the government into a presidential system. 

Turkish columnists expect this as the most likely scenario, where Erdogan will act as a “de facto executive president” during the 10 months between the presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2015, rather than assuming the symbolic role defined in the current constitution. If no procedural and functional problems arise, Erdogan may continue in that role.

The presidential elections are not the ultimate test for AKP’s continuity. If Erdogan becomes president, many believe that without him leading the party, AKP will no longer have popular support and may lose in the next parliamentary elections. Erdogan is seen as the pillar of AKP with most of party's support founded on Erdogan's popularity and charisma.

According to Balci, the build-up to the next elections will reveal the true weakness of the AKP. He expects that fresh leaders and parties, including the possibility of a new right-wing party led by Gul himself, will emerge and gain wide support.

On the other hand, Ulutas maintains that although there is a variety of opinions within AKP, with some members more akin to Gul’s approach, a divergence is an impossible scenario. Supporters of AKP believe its members and constituencies are a united force, and do not envision Gul having an interest or strong base in leading a new party away from the existing AKP.

Among the main constituencies supporting the AKP in recent elections is the Kurdish population. Compared to previous governments, Erdogan has taken considerable strides towards the inclusion of minorities in the Turkish community. He launched a democratisation process with the Kurds in September 2013, offering the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish Movement new reforms. He also recently delivered a historical address dedicating an apology to the Armenian minority for the 1915 massacre. 

An alternative to AKP must be able to incorporate minorities into its agenda, the way AKP has done with the Kurds. It is therefore only a new right-wing, non-nationalist party that may have a chance at replacing the current government, said Balci. 

Oktem argues that “the AKP is on a political downward and will lose its support base as soon as the economy begins to unravel", while Balci believes that the Hizmet movement will have an important role to play in the next phase. He sees the Hizmet will influence voting results in the long run through educating the grassroots about civil rights, which will eventually increase opposition to Erdogan or other Turkish leaders perceived as authoritarian.

While a political alternative may be in the waiting for Turkey's current government, the June 2015 parliamentary elections will show the reality of these speculations. For the time being, Erdogan as the most likely Turkish president, will have to prepare his party for a new phase in Turkish politics. High on that phase’s internal agenda will be pacifying the opposition, while externally reflecting the rule of law, freedom for the media and the provision of civil liberties will be vital to maintaining Turkey's economic growth and international standing. 

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