Despite my instincts that Prime Minister Erdoğan was going to decide that it is better to be a super-empowered prime minister than the Turkish president under the current constitutional configuration, it seems pretty clear at this point that he has his sights trained on the Çankaya Palace. The AKP has officially announced that it is not going to change its internal party regulations to allow MPs who have served three terms to run for a fourth, which means that Erdoğan will be term limited out and will thus seek the presidency. There is no doubt that Erdoğan will win and become the first directly elected Turkish president, and there is also little doubt that he will transform the presidency as he sees fit from a traditionally apolitical office with few real powers into something far different. The more interesting question that remains is who will replace Erdoğan as prime minister, and the answer to that is a lot murkier.
Due to the AKP’s three-terms-and-out rule, 73 AKP parliamentarians are unable to stand for election again and the list is a rundown of nearly all of the party heavyweights. Bülent Arınç, Bekir Bozdağ, Ali Babacan, Ömer Çelik, etc. The A team, that founded the party and shepherded it through three consecutive electoral victories, is out, and that leaves precious few suitable candidates to replace Erdoğan. It will have to be someone who has some modicum of name recognition and influence, but also someone whom Erdoğan can control. To the best of my calculations, there are two people who fit the bill and who are not subject to the term limit conundrum.
The first, and most obvious one, is Ahmet Davutoğlu. There is no question that he has a burning ambition to move on to bigger and better things, and his standing as a candidate for election in 2011 – after being appointed foreign minister despite not being a member of the Grand National Assembly – was a signal that he knew he would need to be more involved politically if he hoped to replace his patron. In many ways, Davutoğlu is the ego (in more ways than one) to Erdoğan’s id, tamping down some of the prime minister’s more rash instincts and never failing to parrot what Erdoğan is saying but putting it in a more favorable light. Whatever the level of outrageousness that Erdoğan is spouting, Davutoğlu always has a ready explanation for what the prime minister actually meant, and he has also shown a willingness to play the attack dog and go on the offensive. Like the prime minister, he always has a scolding lecture handy for those who challenge him. Because he is more reserved and far less willing to reveal whatever he happens to be thinking at any given moment though, Davutoğlu is in some ways more predictable that Erdoğan but in other ways less so, and he is similar to Abdullah Gül in that he plays better with foreign audiences. I once sat through a Davutoğlu lecture at Georgetown where he was at his most charming and dissembling best, and by the end the dean of the School of Foreign Service had literally offered him a position as a professor whenever he was ready to leave the Foreign Ministry. The downside to Erdoğan handing the reins to Davutoğlu is that he might be too ambitious; while he has never publicly displayed any willingness to challenge Erdoğan in any way and has been nothing but the loyal servant, he might very well act differently once prime minister and be less willing to defer to Erdoğan on any and all subjects.
The other plausible candidate is Numan Kurtulmuş, who is far less known to those outside of Turkey. Kurtulmuş and Erdoğan rose up together through the ranks of the Fazilet Party, but split after Fazilet was banned by the Constitutional Court and dissolved, with Kurtulmuş joining with the hardliners to found Saadet and Erdoğan going on to found the AKP. After he was ousted from Saadet, Kurtulmuş formed the HSP – known colloquially as HAS, meaning pure – and then merged HAS with the AKP in July 2012. Unlike Davutoğlu, Kurtulmuş has the street cred that comes from having been part of the crowd around Necmettin Erbakan and the old Islamist parties, and he has a devoted following among Turkish religious conservatives. When the AKP absorbed HAS two years ago, I wrote the following:
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.
I don’t think that Gül is going to try and become prime minister, but the rest of the analysis still holds true. Kurtulmuş seems like precisely the type of PM that Erdoğan could manipulate as president, and who would not protest once Erdoğan begins to expand the powers of his new office and infringe upon the prerogatives that belong to his old office. The question is whether Erdoğan actually trusts Kurtulmuş after their years apart, and to that I have no answer. With the presidential race not in doubt though, how the prime ministry shapes up is what all of those interested in the inside baseball of Turkish politics will be watching as the summer progresses.