Wings of Change

Which faction of Turkey's ruling party will emerge the strongest after the Istanbul protests?


As the protests in Turkey continue, Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains defiant. Upon returning to Istanbul early on Friday, June 7, the prime minister proclaimed to a crowd of gathered supporters that the protests against his rule are "bordering on illegality [and] must come to an end immediately." The day before, he had reiterated his intention to move forward with his plans to uproot Gezi Park — one of the few green spaces left in Istanbul — to make way for a replica Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall.

But even as Erdogan seems intent on bulldozing the opposition, other members of his party may not be so sure. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not monolithic; it represents a disparate coalition of pious Muslims, a segment of the Kurdish population, the economic elite, the Anatolian masses, and some Turkish nationalists. The differences within it have also been magnified in the wake of the protests. It is clear that the party has two wings: one represented by President Abdullah Gul, and the other by Erdogan.

Since rising to power in 2002, the party has been forced to balance its legislative agenda between its factions in order to avoid ostracizing various elements of its base. Over time, this struggle has turned into a virtual tug of war: The Gul wing maintains that the party should pursue policies in line with conservative democratic principles modeled on Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Like the CDU, Gul has embraced faith-based expression consistent with an American-style definition of secularism. Thus, the party’s emphasis at the outset of its rule was on taking the necessary legislative steps to open EU accession talks. The process would make Turkey more liberal, which would then allow for all people — including Turkey’s long-repressed religious majority — to express themselves more freely.

After the process stalled, however, the AKP began using France and Germany’s hostility to Turkish EU accession to deepen its appeal to the party’s nationalist wing. After emphasizing the need for the European Union to deepen Turkish democracy in the early 2000s, officials in Ankara now claim it is Europe that needs Turkey to cure its ailing economy.

Especially since the 2011 general election, when the AKP won nearly 50 percent of the vote, the party’s Erdogan wing has moved away from the democratic-reformist rhetoric of earlier years. The party now leans on religious language far more frequently to justify its policies. This change in rhetoric has coincided with an emphasis on massive public works projects — costing a breathtaking $400 billion — that, along with the economy, has become the centerpiece of the AKP’s political messaging.

Erdogan’s brash rhetoric and his penchant to emphasize Turkey’s grandiose Ottoman past resonate with the AKP’s nationalist wing. The prime minister has recently felt the need to weigh in on citizens’ private lives: He has counseled Turks on the number of children they should have and on the type of bread they should eat. Most recently, he has spoken disparagingly against those who drink alcohol and has imposed new restrictions on the buying and selling of spirits.

The Gul wing is also believed to be closer to Fethullah Gulen — a powerful cleric in the AKP who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Gulen has echoed Gul’s more moderate tone during the protests, subtly warning Erdogan to take the protesters’ demands more seriously. The Gul-Gulen alliance represents a potentially powerful bloc opposing Erdogan, especially as the prime minister continues to prod his party to pass a new constitution that could set the stage for a contest between Erdogan and Gul.

Due to his party’s internal rules, Erdogan will not be allowed to run for another term as prime minister when his current term is up in 2015. This has raised widespread speculation about his political future. The prime minister has proved eager to amend the Turkish Constitution to create a powerful presidency, transforming it from the largely ceremonial office that it is today. In all likelihood, Erdogan will assume the presidency, but the scope of his powers once in office is still very much up for debate.

Erdogan’s constitutional proposal, however, has been met with stiff resistance in parliament — even from members of his own party. Thus, while Erdogan may control the party list and exercise great sway over AKP MPs, it appears he may have overreached. As the behind-the-scenes jostling continues, the real prize for Erdogan and Gul is who will control the party list after 2014.

The political differences within the AKP were exacerbated after a 2011 purge of more liberal AKP MPs — who were known to support Gul — and a purposeful decision to ostracize the liberal bloc within the party. Erdogan controls the party list, which has given him tremendous influence over AKP MPs. As a result, after the 2011 election the party began to take on a more nationalist tinge.

These schisms within the party are not inconsequential. Erdogan’s brash rhetoric has already run afoul of the Gul wing, and if the protests persist, he runs the risk of further polarizing the AKP. While Erdogan has effectively purged most of the opposition within the party, he has not been able to convince it to unanimously support his presidential ambitions.

Erdogan, therefore, faces the biggest challenge of his political career. In addition to the protests, the prime minister must address the different constituencies in his party at a time when he needs its unanimous support to reform the Turkish Constitution. For now, he has chosen to tack to the nationalist right — despite the fact this approach will further complicate his designs on the presidency.

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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