Erdogan under fire from Turkey’s liberals

Turkey's most powerful leader in decades is experiencing something new: serious opposition from within his own ruling party. Thomas Seibert reports
The criticism started after the 59-year-old leader this month proposed conservative new rules. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
The criticism started after the 59-year-old leader this month proposed conservative new rules. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

ISTANBUL // After almost eleven years in power, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, is experiencing something new: serious opposition from within his own ruling party.

Prominent members and supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have openly criticised the prime minister in recent weeks, amid concerns that Mr Erdogan’s hardline conservative style that caters to religious voters will drive away moderate Turks. The row comes as some experts say Turkey’s economy may weaken ahead of local elections in March. Several observers say there are signs that Mr Erdogan’s best times could be behind him.

The criticism started after the 59-year-old leader this month proposed new rules to prevent unmarried female and male university students from living together in student dormitories or private apartments. The prime minister, who has been in power since 2003, said the AKP, “as a conservative-democrat party”, had to act.

Mr Erdogan’s statement caused an outcry among secularist and liberal Turks who argued that an implementation of the plan would violate citizens’ private lives, as most of Turkey’s five million university students are older than 18 years and of age. Under Turkish laws, adults, married or not, are free to choose with whom they live together under one roof.

The prime minister’s position was met with a string of comments from AKP officials and supporters agreeing with the critics.

Fatma Bostan Unsal, a female academic and co-founder of the AKP, called the prime minister’s position “very dangerous”. Nazli Ilicak, a well-known former Islamist lawmaker and pro-government newspaper columnist, said she was ashamed she voted for the AKP in the past.

Even Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and AKP heavyweight, felt the need to speak out. As government spokesman, he denied early reports about Mr Erdogan’s announcements concerning student homes. But Mr Erdogan himself confirmed the reports one day later.

Mr Arinc used a television interview to criticise Mr Erdogan and to state that he would not be pushed around by the prime minister. “I am not only a minister,” Mr Arinc said in reference to his influence in the AKP. “I am a man who represents the party’s views, thoughts, past, present and future.”

Open criticism like that is highly unusual in the AKP, where Mr Erdogan’s leadership has been largely unchallenged after three consecutive victories in national elections since 2002. In his only public reply to Mr Arinc so far, the prime minister said differences should be sorted out behind closed doors.

Shortly after Mr Arinc spoke, a separate row broke out between the Erdogan government and the powerful Islamic movement of Fethullah Gulen, a scholar and preacher living in the United States. The Gulen movement has been an ally of Mr Erdogan in the past, but distanced itself from the prime minister in recent months, in part because of the prime minister’s tough stance towards a wave of nationwide protests last summer.

Plans by the government to shut down private prep schools in Turkey triggered new tensions with the Gulen movement that runs many of those schools. Zaman, the movement’s newspaper, accused the government of launching a “coup d’état” against education and free enterprise. Mevlut Akgun, an AKP deputy in parliament, said on Twitter he would vote against any government bill that would close down private prep schools.

Some observers say the cracks appearing within the AKP and Turkey’s conservative camp are signs that Mr Erdogan’s position is no longer unassailable.

Gunter Seufert, a Turkey analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a federally funded think tank in Berlin, said the prime minister faced profound challenges to his leadership.

In a paper published before the rows about student dorms and prep schools erupted, Mr Seufert pointed to frictions between Mr Erdogan and the Gulen movement and said Turkey’s “conservative elite” was no longer entirely happy with Mr Erdogan either. Mr Erdogan’s popularity among Kurds and liberal Turks had already been on the wane, Mr Seufert wrote. The prime minister had “passed the zenith of his power”, he added.

Andrew Mango, a historian specialising in Turkey, agreed. Faced with the prime minister’s pledge to ban mixed-sex student housing, some in the AKP felt that “the prime minister has passed his use-by date”, Mr Mango told the BirGun newspaper last week.

He compared Mr Erdogan to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was toppled by her own party in 1990. “In the same manner, the AKP can force Erdogan to resign.”

The dimension of dissent within the AKP remains unclear, but Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University said he had heard that at least 50 of the AKP’s 327 deputies in parliament were unhappy with Mr Erdogan’s conduct.

Mustafa Sonmez, an economist and political commentator in Istanbul, said rising unemployment and a possible drop in foreign investment may add economic woes to Mr Erdogan’s political problems.

“The winter months could become harder economically, just ahead of the March elections,” Mr Sonmez told The National yesterday, in reference to local elections scheduled for March 30.

Worsening economic conditions and a rift within the AKP could make it harder for Mr Erdogan to lead his party to a victory in March and to fulfill his ambition to become president in an election scheduled for August next year.

But Mr Erdogan’s aides dismissed those scenarios. Huseyin Celik, the AKP spokesman, said the opposition should not hope to profit from the differences of opinion inside the AKP. Yalcin Akdogan, a close advisor to Mr Erdogan said on Twitter a poll had shown that a majority of Turks supported the prime minister’s position on student housing.

Mr Arinc, the government spokesman, said this week he and Mr Erdogan had ironed out their differences, adding it had never been his intention “to damage my government and my prime minister”.

tseibert@thenational.ae

Published: November 20, 2013 04:00 AM

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