Power politics in Turkish capital

Sooner rather than later, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will find himself paralyzed amid opposing pulls from several strong factions from within the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as from political master Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has his own personal agenda that does not necessarily overlap with that of the government, or the nation for that matter.

The serious political fallout resulting from corruption investigations incriminating the president and his family members has left Erdoğan with little political capital to spend in order to ward off legal troubles rather than taking on difficult national issues and tackling urgently needed reforms.

In the meantime, he realizes that his firm control of the ruling party through loyalists he planted has started to weaken, making him angrier than ever — which is visible in public outbursts. The fact that he stepped up his unrelenting attacks on the judiciary, business community, civil society, the media, Turkey’s international partners in speeches and interviews he has done this week alone is testament to Erdoğan’s growing frustration in controlling the public discussion.

It is unavoidable that Erdoğan will slowly but surely fade away from the political scene just like former presidents who lost their grip on power after departing from their political parties they helped establish and run for years. The law of the jungle in Turkish politics dictates that the real power ultimately rests with Davutoğlu’s office as the prime minister ultimately controls the legislative and executive branches.

Perhaps that is the reason why Erdoğan deliberately left his wingman, Yalçın Akdoğan, as deputy prime minister in the government in charge of coordination between the government and Parliament. He hopes to manage the legislative affairs behind Davutoğlu’s back as we saw in the last-minute addition to an omnibus bill removing the judicial review on Internet restrictions.

However, Erdoğan will soon realize that ruling the government by proxies will be more difficult than he imagined. The resentment against Erdoğan is palpable already as the rift between the president and the government on several issues has exposed the diverging interests to the public view. The conflicting views on Bank Asya, Turkey’s largest Islamic lender and one of the top three healthiest and strongest banks in terms of capital adequacy, revealed the rift. Driving a personal vendetta, Erdoğan wants the government to seize the bank when not warranted, yet the government, fearing the political fallout and the economic crisis on the back of a systemic collapse in the banking and financial industry, opposed such a move.

The sheer magnitude of the governing party’s foreign policy failures stemming from ideological preferences imposed by political Islamists and pro-Iranian factions that effectively seized power in the ruling party continues to complicate Turkey’s relations with the outside world. Turkey’s lackluster performance on joining the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), at least publicly — in fact, the terrorist group has poses a more serious threat to Turkish national security than to anybody else among its NATO and Western allies — reveals the damage inflicted to the country by small but powerful Islamist zealots in government. This will continue to fuel discontent within the ruling party and in Turkey. Davutoğlu’s unwillingness to admit his own mistakes and the persistence on already-defeated policy choices will further complicate Turkish efforts to repair the damage abroad.

Compounding all this are economic woes, which will certainly hit Turkey hard given the troubling signs in economic indicators on the home front as well as in the global economic outlook, which is changing rapidly with the Federal Reserve’s tapering off of its bond-buying stimulus program and the security challenges hampering trade in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. Unemployment is on the rise and many families are finding it difficult to manage their household debt accumulated over time on credit cards, mortgages and car loans. With the likely interest rate hike by the Fed, the Turkish economy, which is in dire need of external finance due to its high current account deficit, will face more difficulties ahead.

Moreover, the economic management led by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, viewed as highly successful by many in Turkey and abroad, is worried over political feuds taking a big toll on the economy while destroying the credibility of the economic team. The witch hunt pursued by Erdoğan and his associates in the government against opponents and critics, including members of the Hizmet movement that is inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, is thwarting efforts of Babacan and others in realigning the government’s focus on economic reforms and measures.

The suspension of the rule of law and blatant abuse of the criminal justice system in these revenge operations have eroded what is left of trust of the judiciary in Turkey, scaring investors. Massive profiling of businesses according to their political and ideological affiliations across the nation and punishing them with targeted auditing, license revocation and tax fines have unnerved the business community further, hampering the precious asset of confidence in the economy.

For the moment, the only thing that holds the ruling party together is the patronage system, through which many members receive their perks in terms of positions, influence and money. Therefore, most members of the ruling AKP simply jockey for power and, as such, their allegiances to leaders are shallow and prone to easy shift. Yesterday, it was Erdoğan who held this patronage through kickbacks from major contracts and tenders as well as through position and power in government jobs. To what extent Davutoğlu was able to take over control of the patronage system is questionable as Erdoğan and his loyalists are still in control of key portfolios in the government. Davutoğlu knows well that he won’t survive in politics unless he fully asserts his supremacy on this patronage system. This will surely pit Davutoğlu against Erdoğan.

There is a third factor lurking in the shadows, of course: former President Abdullah Gül, who banks on the colossal failure of the Davutoğlu government in holding the party together. Gül made it clear that he will come back to the party he helped to establish and will keep making overtures in the public view to stay visible. The day after he retired from the presidential office, he made a visit to the grave of Necmettin Erbakan, the founding father of political Islam in Turkey, and the grave of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, the leading ideologue and intellectual among Islamists. That was a significant message to both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, hinting that Gül wants to own the inheritance of political Islamists. That is why Davutoğlu rushed to İstanbul to pay his respects to these legendary figures shortly after Gül. Time will tell whether the former president may succeed in taking over the AKP or not. If he fails, he may establish a new party as well. In any case, he may very well be a spoiler for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu.

I think Davutoğlu, a former academic, also realizes that Erdoğan’s way of scaring and intimidating the people is not working either. History is full of lessons showing that oppressive and authoritarian regimes did not last long and eventually crumbled. Moreover, we do not see Erdoğan’s political and social opposition groups getting demoralized despite back-to-back election defeats. Erdoğan’s heavy-handed policies failed to scare most Turks, who by nature are not passive but rather resilient people who are not afraid of taking on their leaders.

As the government pushes more, it gets more push-back from the people. The Gezi protests of last year that quickly spread across many provinces were evidence of this characteristic of the Turkish society. Islamic scholar Gülen’s unwavering stand against corruption in government and the exploitation of Islam for political purposes despite an intensive campaign of defamation by Erdoğan and his gang of political Islamists is another indication of the strong trait deeply embedded in the moderate Sufi character of this nation. The judiciary, leading business figures, independent media and civil society are not afraid to speak up against the government.

For sure, Turkey will go journey through an unsettling period until it finds the right balance in its democracy that was briefly interrupted by Erdoğan’s greed, ambitions and ideology. The election results for members of the key judicial council, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), may be a catalyst in fast-tracking that effort of finding the right equilibrium in Turkish politics only if independent and impartial members succeed. If not, it may take longer for Turkey to fulfill its democratic aspirations with strong checks and balances among state institutions and a true respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms.

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