As Istanbul vote re-run approaches, Erdogan faces trouble within party

The president is contending with growing divisions and rumours of a rival split

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, May 30, 2019. Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump will meet at next month's Group of 20 summit to discuss bilateral issues, including Ankara's plan to buy a Russian missile defense system that has raised the ire of the United States. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
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As the re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election looms, it is not just the prospect of the opposition consolidating its March victory that concerns Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Faced with a bleak economic outlook and polls showing his Justice and Development Party (AKP) could lose a second time, Mr Erdogan is also contending with growing division within the AKP amid rumours that leading members are planning rival parties.

“There are serious tensions within the AKP, powerful centrifugal forces, which is not surprising given the economic situation,” Ahmet Evin, a senior scholar at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Centre, said.

“Some people see the crisis looming. Very clearly the AKP is likely to continue to fail to deliver and therefore they want to do something about it. In other words, an alternative within or outside the party.”

Dissent centres on three figures sidelined by Mr Erdogan – former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, ex-President Abdullah Gul and former economic supremo Ali Babacan.

The most vocal among them has been Mr Davutoglu, who resigned as prime minister in 2016 amid claims of disagreement with Mr Erdogan, particularly over the switch to a presidential system.

Mr Gul has long been touted as a challenger to Mr Erdogan. Like the president, he was a founding party member but has not held office since being replaced five years ago.

Credited with plotting the AKP’s early economic success, Mr Babacan is widely regarded in foreign finance circles as someone to steer Turkey out of its economic crisis.

None of the trio have openly confirmed or denied plans to establish a new party but persistent rumours have highlighted tensions in AKP circles.

Yasar Yakis, another AKP founder and a former foreign minister, quoted a Turkish proverb that “a rooster that crows too early will be slaughtered soon” while suggesting the “dissidents” will wait until after the June 23 Istanbul re-run before breaking cover.

Another loss would “become a game changer for Turkey and more so for the AKP,” he said. “Those who used to raise a timid voice in the party will now do so much louder.”

Strains within the AKP have emerged because of several developments, not least the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in March, when it entered the polls in alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The alliance came out as overall winners despite these headline defeats but the success of MHP candidates, often at the expense of the AKP, led to questions within the alliance’s dominant partner.

“Trust within the alliance is eroding,” Selim Sazak, a researcher at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, said.

“The MHP won a lot of municipalities in the election, most of them from the AKP. That means a loss of power and revenue for the AKP. Adding insult to injury is that they lost these seats not to the opposition but to their own allies.”

Rival power bases within the AKP – initially established as a broad political church – have also created tensions.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, a nationalist who joined the AKP in 2012, is reportedly a fierce rival to Finance Minister Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Mr Erdogan’s son-in-law and the favourite to replace the president.

In this atmosphere, the jostling of Mr Davutoglu and Mr Gul opens another axis for disaffected AKP supporters.

Last weekend, Mr Davutoglu called for a “new vision” for Turkey. “Unless we find it, we will not be able to safeguard our core values and pass the legacy on to the new generations,” he said in his home city of Konya.

Losing again in Istanbul “will inflict further damage to the AKP leadership,” Prof Evin said. “It all points to instability.”