Sultan of Turkey: Erdogan's Shameless Power Play

His party may have other ideas...

A row erupted within Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on March 21, after the deputy prime minister brazenly condemned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for stepping outside his boundaries by criticizing the government’s Kurdish peace process. Deputy Prime Minister and AKP co-founder Bulent Arinc quickly shot back, reminding Erdoğan that “it is the government that rules the country, and this is the responsibility of the government.” In response, the AKP mayor of Ankara called for Arinc’s resignation, while Erdoğan admonished the deputy premier for forgetting that he is Turkey’s president, not merely a “showroom model.”

Erdoğan is Turkey’s first publicly elected president. Under the current parliamentary system, the presidency is a largely symbolic institution, but Erdoğan is agitating for a more active role. His ultimate goal is to alter the constitution and transform the country’s political system into a presidential one, but to do so without negotiating with the opposition, he needs the AKP to win a two-thirds majority in the upcoming June elections.

Until such a transformation occurs, however, Erdoğan’s powers as president are legally restricted. Upon leaving the Prime Minister’s Office after thirteen years last August, pursuant to Turkish law, he was forced to resign from the AKP, and transferred both executive authority and the party’s leadership to the new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Since then, however, Erdoğan has repeatedly violated parliamentary protocol and interfered in the AKP’s internal affairs.

The opposition has long complained about Erdoğan’s meddling, but March 21 was the first time that criticism came from a senior government official within the AKP. Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar playfully called Arinc’s reaction his “one-minute” moment against Erdoğan—a reference to an infamous moment at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos when Erdoğan lashed out at moderator David Ignatius for interrupting his speech, repeating the phrase, “One minute!”

Arinc is not the only AKP official displeased with Erdoğan’s attempts to exert political control. Indeed, the president’s efforts to consolidate power have even undermined the role of Davutoglu—a longtime ally and deputy to Erdoğan—as head of the party and the government.

For example, in January, Erdoğan decided to chair a cabinet meeting in Davutoglu’s place. Later that month, Turkey’s parliament voted on whether to try four ex-ministers in the Supreme Court on corruption allegations. Davutoglu was in favor, but Erdoğan met with AKP members to lobby against the measure. In the end, most AKP members voted Erdoğan’s way, with a disgruntled Davutoglu skipping the vote entirely. Then, in February, Erdoğan persuaded the party to postpone an Erdoğan initiative to increase government transparency until after the June elections. Earlier this month, Erdoğan chaired his second cabinet meeting.

Moreover, Erdoğan has kept just as busy as a party leader in the pre-election period, lobbying for the AKP despite a constitutional obligation to uphold political impartiality. The president has not only appeared to exert control over Davutoglu’s list of AKP electoral candidates, he also allegedly admitted to having reviewed the party’s election manifesto (though he later denied it).

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