Steven A. Cook, Elections in Turkey

The American Interest, April 7, 2015

steven a cook elections in turkeyIt seems to have dawned on some in the AKP elite that Erdogan is becoming a problem. But is there anyone who can check him?

It is eight weeks before Turkey’s general elections, the end of a stretch that has lasted a little more than a year during which Turks will have gone to the polls three times to elect their Mayors, President, and now legislators. The extended electoral season, made difficult by Turkey’s polarization, has not dampened the Istanbul-Ankara elite’s appetite for rank speculation, however. In years past, much of this chatter centered on parties and politicians who were going to save Turkey from whatever crisis of governance had befallen the country. There was the businessman Cem Uzan and his Youth Party in 2002; the dream team of Ismail Cem and Kemal Dervis, who were going to lead the New Turkey Party to victory also in 2002; Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the man to reverse the slide of the Republican People’s Party into the party of Izmir and certain Istanbul neighborhoods; and, of course, Abdullah Gul, the man to wrest control of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Uzan, however, was convicted of fraud in the United States and now lives in France, the New Turkey Party received a paltry 1.2 percent of the vote, Kilicdaroglu has presided over one defeat after the next, and Gul moved quietly from Ankara’s Cankaya Palace to Istanbul, where he seems to be enjoying retirement. So much for saving Turkey.

As this year’s vote approaches, speculation has focused not on a would-be charismatic leader riding to the rescue, but rather on the relationship between Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and what it means for the future of Turkish politics. There seems to be a consensus among Ankara insiders and foreign observers that all is not well between the Prime Minister and the President. The deteriorating relationship between Davutoglu and Erdogan has given life to the idea that there is now a faction within the AKP capable of checking Erdogan and his apparent voracious appetite for power. It seems that the two most powerful figures in Turkish politics barely tolerate each other, but Davutoglu and his emerging faction—if it exists—do not stand a chance. Erdogan is, and will likely remain, the sun around which Turkish politics revolves.

Under normal circumstances the tension between the two men would amount to little more than mildly titillating gossip—hardly consequential given the formal rules of Turkish politics, which place the weight of executive power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Yet it is precisely this balance that makes the relationship between Davutoglu and Erdogan so important because it is inextricably linked with the latter’s desire to alter the character of Turkey’s political system. Since the June 2011 elections when the AKP won 49.8 percent of the popular vote, Erdogan has made it clear that he wants to do away with Turkey’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system and replace it with a purely presidential one.

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