Intra-Party Opposition in the AK Party

As journalists who closely follow Turkish politics, we are used to the inner debates and quests for new leaders within the Republican People’s Party following every election. But this ritual will be reversed in the morning of June 24 since our eyes will turn to the Justice and Development Party this time.

Intra-Party Opposition in the AK Party
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Turkey's former President Abdullah Gul (R), Turkey's Parliamentary speaker Cemil Cicek (2nd L) and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (L) attend the state funeral of Turkey's ninth President and former Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, whose coffin and trademark hat are seen in foreground, at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) in Ankara, Turkey on June 19, 2015. Getty Images

As journalists who closely follow Turkish politics, we are used to the inner debates and quests for new leaders within the Republican People’s Party (CHP) following every election. But this ritual will be reversed in the morning of June 24 since our eyes will turn to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) this time. No matter what the result is, some accounts will be settled within the party on the day after the election.

There are only a few examples of failure in the history of the AK Party. To name one, the party’s vote share decreased from 46.5 percent to 38.4 percent in the 2009 local election due to the serious economic shrinkage with the effect of the 2008 global economic crisis.  

But this decline did not cause any major intra-party debate despite the resignation of Abdüllatif Şener, one of the co-founders and leading names of the party. The unquestionably strong position of the party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expedited Erdogan’s embarking on a serious restructuring effort within the party.

Afterwards, Erdoğan consolidated his position within the party as the AK Party won the 2010 referendum by receiving 57 percent and then won the 2011 election with 46.6 percent.

However, the attempts to hinder then President Abdullah Gul’s presidential candidacy for the first presidential election with a direct national vote caused some disaccords in the party for the first time. The murmurs stopped when Erdoğan ran for and was elected president, Gül did not make any move to chair the party and Ahmet Davutoglu was assigned as the new chairman of the AK Party.

But in a short while, some groups within the party started to voice their opposition to Davutoglu. Especially a group that gathered around Binali Yıldırım managed to hamper some decisions of Davutoglu in an unprecedented way in the AK Party’s history and culture.

Meanwhile, in the general election held in 2015, the AK Party’s vote share fell to 41 percent and thus the party lost the parliamentary majority under the leadership of Davutoglu. At that point, President Erdogan, who organized rallies and meetings and always spoke in favor of the AK Party during the election campaign period, intervened and operated the Constitutional election renewal rule by showing that a government could not be founded. So, a re-election was held in November 2015, at which the AK Party had a great success by receiving 49 percent and came to power alone again.

To whom must the victory in the re-election be attributed? According to many AK Party supporters, the success was achieved thanks to the President, who did not accept the results of the first election and called for a re-election. But according to another group gathering around Davutoglu, the success was thanks to the persuasion of the President to stay one step behind between June and November and the party’s restoring of factory settings in the meantime.

A few months after the election, Davutoglu resigned from his post as prime minister and from the AK Party leadership after a series of events that have not yet been fully illuminated. The party organized a Congress, in which Binali Yildirim was elected as the new chairman and prime minister. Davutoglu and his team, meanwhile, were completely pushed aside.

An array of splits in opinion and tone played a role in the process leading up to Davutoglu’s discharge from the party, but the two most crucial aspects, in my opinion, were Davutoglu’s raising difficulties in transition to the new executive presidential system and laying claims to the election success in November 2015.

Soon after Yildirim's assignment to the prime minister’s office, Turkey experienced a catastrophe. On the night of 15 July, 2016, the Gulenist Terror Group (FETO) attempted to stage a military coup to seize control of the country. The insurrection was ruled out thanks to the people who took to the streets to defend democracy, and Turkey underwent a tremendous transformation after that night.

As one of the most significant changes throughout this process, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which had always been the most outspoken opposition party, started siding with the AK Party for the stability and perpetuity of the country. When the MHP gave green light to the new presidential system, the endeavors in this regard were expedited. Eventually, the Constitution was amended and a referendum on whether to approve the new system was held.

The referendum results set a significant indicator displaying the changing political split in Turkey. In the general election held in November 2015, the total vote shares of the AK Party and the MHP were above 60 percent, but the “yes” campaign run by these two parties for the referendum won with a 51.4 percent vote share - with a vote difference less than 1.5 million. The referendum was followed by the June 2018 general election. The two parties ran for the election by forming an alliance on a legal basis. The AK Party declined to the June 2015 levels by receiving 42.56 percent whereas the MHP received 11.1 percent. The vote share of the People’s Alliance was almost at the same level as the “yes” votes in the referendum. (As for the presidential election of the same date; however, President Erdoğan won by receiving 52.6 percent in the first round.)

For Turkey, President Erdogan’s leadership was beyond question; his vote share was more than the sum of all his opponents’ vote share, but that did not apply to his party. The AK Party lost the parliamentary majority and the alliance with the MHP turned out to be an exigence.

This situation seems as the root cause of the problem currently experienced in the AK Party because it is believed by some that the alliance relations have drawn the AK Party’s stance closer to the MHP. This is the argument of some bashful opponents within the party. Nevertheless, the AK Party clearly rejected some demands of the MHP, such as the declaration of general amnesty. But this negative answer would nearly dissolve the People’s Alliance on the eve of the local election.

For Turkey, President Erdogan's leadership and his vote share are kept separately from the AK Party. The AK Party lost its parliamentary majority and the alliance with the MHP turned out to be an exigence.

The 2019 local election once again verified the 48-52 percent balance, which has been persistent since the 2007 referendum, but the method of calculating ballots employed in the local election is far from showing how the 52 percent is portioned among the parties. So, although the AK Party claims to have a 44 percent vote share, the MHP electorate comprise a part of this share.

The generally accepted opinion suggests that the AK Party’s vote share this time fell under the 42 percent received in the general election whereas the MHP consolidated its power thanks to AK Party voters.

The general decline in the AK Party’s vote share, the party’s loss of Ankara and Antalya municipalities, the decision of re-running the Istanbul mayoral election at the moment when hopes for Istanbul faded… All these developments caused the critical views in the party to be voiced in a more articulate way.

Some have criticized the AK Party's alliance with the MHP, claiming that the party has moved more in line with MHP's rhetoric. 

The bitter criticism was issued by former Prime Minister Davutoglu. For him, the convergence with the MHP undermines the AK Party’s values and cause and makes the MHP take advantage of the AK Party votes. Davutoglu abstained from criticizing President Erdogan and called him “our leader” but went on to claim that a group, which he did not specify, surrounds Erdogan and causes him to make mistakes. This criticism is hard to swallow, and it has been uttered by a former prime minister from the AK Party who also chaired the party. As expected, these severe criticisms were met with a profound silence, the ones talking about the criticisms spoke in a low voice. President Erdogan, meanwhile, completely ignored Davutoglu’s manifesto.

But Davutoglu’s remarks led to another rumor. It was alleged that two separate groups within the AK Party were mobilized to form a new party. One of these groups gathered around Davutoglu while the other one gathered around former president Abdullah Gul and former economy minister Ali Babacan.

It will be useful to look at the profiles of Gul and Babacan in this context.

Gül repeatedly expressed his resentment for the attempt to hamper his presidential candidacy with the enactment of a law in 2014. It is also known that Gul and Erdogan had a fall out to the point of no return with their different reactions to the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Subsequently, the reactions they gave to the December 17-25 judicial coup attempts sharpened this split. Gul argued in this context that the threats must be answered within the limits of law and extraordinary legal practices must be avoided, while Erdoğan displayed a strict attitude. So, we have many reasons to believe that a similar divergence might have occurred in the scope of the stance against FETO in the aftermath of the coup attempt.

In Ahmet Davutoglu's critique against the AK Party, he did not give the name of the President, but rather claimed that there was an inner circle of advisors that were leading to ill-judged decisions being made. 

Because of these splits in opinion, Gul allowed his mention as a joint presidential candidate of the opposition parties in 2018; and in a statement he issued later on, he said that he got such an offer and did not refuse it since he hoped for reconciliation. So, he seemed determined to run against Erdogan if conditions had been suitable. This is also hard to swallow in the AK Party culture. Gul also issued a diatribe against the YSK decision to cancel and renew the Istanbul mayoral election by comparing the decision to the illegitimate 367 ruling of the Constitutional Court that hampered his presidency in 2007.

Babacan, on the other hand, is lying low since he left office. Although he is appearing at iftar dinners nowadays, he does not make any statements, but only smiles to cameras. It is alleged that Babacan will chair the new party that will be founded with the background support of Gul. However, it is a little puzzling how a leadership will be manifested with this habit of lying low that reaches to the point of bashfulness.

As a journalist who has been closely following Turkish politics since the 1980s, has witnessed the birth of the reformist movement within the Virtue Party and its evolution to the AK Party, I can say based on my experience that some trying days await President Erdoğan and the AK Party.

There are rumors that former AK Party members will form a new political party or two. On the one side there's the possibility of a party with the leadership of Ahmet Davutoglu and on the other, one in the leadership of Ali Babacan with support from Abdullah Gul. 

It is obvious that neither Davutoglu nor the Gul-Babacan duo has any potential to directly target or undermine Erdogan. For this very reason, they prefer to target Erdogan’s inner circle instead of Erdogan himself and hold this circle accountable for the failure.

Therefore, what really matters is the steps to be taken by the President Erdogan rather than Davutoglu’s or Gul-Babacan’s groups.

Erdogan is probably waiting for the June 23 election in order to make a move. (According to a claim, Erdogan implied at his party’s latest Central Decision and Execution Committee meeting that right before the election and after the Ramadan holiday he might send Davutoglu to the disciplinary board with the request of a complete discharge.)

The rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election on June 23 took on new meanings and significance. If the AK Party wins the election, we might see sweeping discharges in the AK Party that will not be limited to the dissident figures in the party. If they lose, the groups who are already expecting to be discharged (for various reasons) might gather and kick off a more widespread intra-party opposition movement.

No matter what the result will be, we will be talking about the AK Party on the morning of June 24.

İsmet Berkan
İsmet Berkan worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet, Yeni Yüzyıl, Radikal and Hürriyet newspapers. He was the Editor-in-Chief and political columnist at Radikal for 15 years, and wrote a column for Hürriyet for 6 years. For the last 8 years, Berkan has been on TRT1’s weekly political analysis program ‘Enine Boyuna.’