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Looking for new political equations in Turkey

Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends his party’s congress in Ankara, Turkey on January 13, 2021 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends his party’s congress in Ankara, Turkey on January 13, 2021 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]

The government and opposition in Turkey agree that the general situation is not good, even if the former does not say this explicitly. However, interpreting its actions allows us to understand the anxiety it has about its political future. Periodic opinion polls suggest a decline in the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, led by Davlet Bahceli. There is also tension between the two parties that can be discerned from the statements made by their leaders and their frequent meetings recently.

What raised the most questions in the past few weeks, though, was a visit by Erdogan to the home of the chairman of the High Advisory Board of the opposition Islamist Felicity Party, Oguzhan Asilturk. The talk after that meeting was about the potential for an alliance between the AKP and Asilturk's party after a two-decade estrangement. The AKP was founded in 2001, after splitting from the Felicity Party, which was then headed by Necmettin Erbakan, the father of political Islam in Turkey.

It is worth noting that the leader of the Felicity Party, Temel Karamollaoglu, linked any possible rapprochement between the two parties to a return to the parliamentary system and the government reviewing its approach, which is a euphemism to cover potential contradictions within the ruling People's Alliance of which the AKP is the main party. It is known that Bahceli is committed to the presidential approach and is apprehensive about any political reform, especially a return to the parliamentary system, as the doors are likely to be closed to his party if the results of opinion polls are accurate. They suggest that it will not win more than seven per cent of the vote.

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There are contradictory analyses about what Erdogan is seeking, whether from the visit to Asilturk, opening channels of communication with smaller parties, or his attempts to attract the Good Party, headed by Meral Aksener, who also stipulated a return to the parliamentary system as a condition for any rapprochement with the government. One analysis is that Erdogan is looking for ways to get rid of his nationalist partner because he has become a burden and prevents him from carrying out the political initiatives that he badly needs. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who leads the opposition Future Party, is the most prominent person to express this view explicitly. He added that his party would stand with the government if Erdogan decides to get rid of Bahceli and his Nationalist Movement Party and return to the parliamentary system.

The other analysis is based on Erdogan's commitment to his alliance with Bahceli and considers his contacts with some of the opposition leaders as an attempt to expand the existing alliance, not to dismantle it.

Although they contradict each other, it is possible that the two analyses are both valid. President Erdogan could be giving himself room for manoeuvre with several options instead of the current situation which gives Bahceli more power than the size of his party warrants. In other words, Bahceli seems to have shifted from being able to force Erdogan's hand to being the object of the latter's control. This explains his impulsive and firm statements, as well as his repeated demands to dismantle the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP), citing its organic ties with the terrorist PKK. It also explains his apprehension over the release from prison of Selahattin Demirtaş, the PDP's former head.

So far, these demands have fallen on deaf ears, despite continued restrictions on PDP activity and the relentless imprisonment of its activists, which can perhaps be viewed as a form of reverse blackmail against Bahceli using the Kurdish party. This is because weakening the PDP to the point of not it reaching the 10 per cent threshold required to enter parliament would add dozens of parliamentary seats to the AKP. Dissolving the party, however, would push its electoral base to vote for opposition parties, especially the Republican People's Party, and produce negative reactions from European countries and the US, which Erdogan can do without at the moment.

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The main and direct reason for the decline in the popularity of the AKP is the economic situation that has worsened due to the preventive measures taken during the Covid-19 pandemic. People now complain about the high prices of basic commodities, while already high unemployment is rising steadily. This suggests the breakdown of the AKP's social base.

The resignation of Finance Minister Berat Albayrak in November was a major turning point in the government's and the president's sensitivity to the general situation and an expression of concern over their political future. Moreover, Joe Biden's election as US president also served as a wake-up call about Turkey's relationship with the new Democrat administration.

Turkey aims to rid itself of the shackles imposed by energy imports thanks to the natural gas found in the Black Sea - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Turkey aims to rid itself of the shackles imposed by energy imports thanks to the natural gas found in the Black Sea – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Although the next parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey are scheduled tentatively for late 2023, anyone observing the political scene in the country will get the impression that elections are in a few months, not more than two years away. Some Turkish analysts actually expect the elections to be called early, perhaps later this year, initiated by Erdogan himself if he feels confident of victory, instead of waiting for the scheduled date before which the economic situation may worsen even more.

A return to the parliamentary system may be one of Erdogan's better options given that the presidential system requires him to get at least 51 per cent of the vote, which is difficult, even with his alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party. Going back to the parliamentary system, however, means that he may be able to stay in power even if the AKP receives only 30 per cent or more of the vote, keeping it in first place among the competing parties. The additional benefit of the parliamentary scenario is that he could be rid of his ally, with the possibility of new alliances with parties that are now part of the opposition.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 27 January 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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