There has been a fair amount of maneuvering by Turkey’s political parties in the last couple of weeks, suggesting that the AKP is trying to determine how best to extend its dominance – or perhaps more accurately, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s dominance – while the CHP senses an opportunity to cut into AKP gains for the first time in a decade. First, there was Erdoğan’s invitation to the HAS Party (Voice of the People) to merge with the AKP. HAS was founded by Numan Kurtulmuş, who, unlike Erdoğan, stuck with former PM Necmettin Erbakan following the ban on the Fazilet Party and then eventually broke with Erbakan to form HAS. Erdoğan and Kurtulmuş both grew up within Turkish political Islam, but they had very different styles. Whereas Erdoğan was, and is, more bombastic and a lot savvier politically, seeing the opportunity in breaking with his mentor and forming the AKP as a more moderate and reformist version of an Islamic-inspired party, Kurtulmuş stuck with Erbakan a lot longer and only founded HAS in 2010 after being forced out of Saadet by more conservative elements.
There is speculation that the reason Erdoğan has now invited HAS into the fold has to do more with Kurtulmuş than with HAS itself. As he announced yesterday, Erdoğan is only going to run as AKP leader one more time, which means that he needs a way to remain as the dominant figure within his party. While everyone anticipates that the new constitution spearheaded by the AKP will transform Turkey into a presidential system and that Erdoğan will run to be Turkey’s first newly powerful president, that does not mean that his path forward is completely clear. Should Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, make a bid to be PM, then Erdoğan will have a serious and credible rival standing opposite him within his own party. Gül is a popular politician, a serious thinker, and less divisive than Erdoğan, and it is unclear that a President Erdoğan would be able to dominate a Prime Minister Gül. Kurtulmuş, on the other hand, is another story. He is exactly the type of PM that a President Erdoğan would want, since he is pliable and less likely to seek to carve out an independent power base from which to challenge Erdoğan. In fact, when the HAS Party was formed, some of its members were concerned that Kurtulmuş was not tough enough and that his lack of an “authoritarian mentality” would be a weakness compared to the leaders of other parties. Should HAS merge with the AKP, and all signs so far point to this happening, look for Kurtulmuş to slowly emerge as Erdoğan’s favored candidate to replace him as PM.
The other development is with regard to the CHP, which appears to be asserting itself more and more as it sees some crucial openings with which to challenge the ruling AKP. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has announced that the CHP will intensify its efforts to become a true social democratic party which not coincidentally coincides with a growing chorus of criticism over the AKP’s sometimes authoritarian impulses and actions. More interestingly, Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech to the CHP convention today hammered the government on foreign policy as well, suggesting that the CHP sees Turkey’s approach to the world (and more specifically, its policy on Syria) as becoming a political albatross. Given the way in which Turkey’s international status has grown amidst a nearly universal glowing reputation for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the manner in which Erdoğan has all but accused the CHP of treason for criticizing government policy on Syria, this is a bold strike on Kılıçdaroğlu’s part. It remains to be seen if it will work, but the CHP is clearly banking its chips on the notion that Turks are beginning to get fed up with the AKP on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. Should the more direct confrontation with Erdoğan and the clearer contrast between the two leading parties goad Erdoğan into some more intemperate statements, he might make the CHP’s point that it is time for a change all by himself. No matter what happens, we are in for some interesting months ahead on the Turkish political front.