On April 26 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had yet to formulate a strategy to counter the application for the party’s closure, which was filed by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya with the Constitutional Court on March 14 (see EDM, March 17).
Over the past five weeks, the Turkish media have been awash with rumors about the AKP’s likely response. Most of the speculation has focused on possible amendments to the Turkish Constitution to make it more difficult to close down political parties and whether such changes would be imbedded in a broader package of democratizing reforms. Yet, with just days to go before the AKP is due to present its preliminary defense to the Constitutional Court on May 2, the party still appears uncertain about how to proceed. Perhaps more worryingly for a party that has always prided itself on presenting a united front to the electorate, there are increasing signs that the strains and divisions within the party may be about to spill over into the public domain.
On April 26, at a press conference in Ankara, Erdogan was asked whether the AKP planned to try to amend the constitution.
“We haven’t decided whether such a step would be right or not during such a process,” replied Erdogan, “but I am continuing to hold meetings with my parliamentary deputies and am listening to their views” (Vatan, Milliyet, Radikal, NTV, April 27).
Erdogan also admitted that the AKP had yet to decide whether the AKP would use its legal right to request a month’s extension of the deadline to present its preliminary defense to the Constitutional Court (Vatan, Hurriyet, April 27).
Erdogan’s statement came the day after the most outspoken attack on his leadership from within the AKP since the party was returned to power by a landslide in the July 22, 2007, general election. In an interview with the local Bayrak newspaper, Vahit Erdem, an AKP member of parliament from the central Anatolian city of Kirikkale, vigorously denounced what he described as the AKP’s failure to address the concerns of those who feared that the party had a radical Islamist agenda, particularly during its heavy-handed attempts in February to amend the constitution to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities (see EDM, February 11), an initiative that is widely believed to have prompted Yalcinkaya’s application for the AKP’s closure.
“We won 47 percent of the vote, but there are also the 53 percent that we didn’t win,” said Erdem in a reference to the 2007 general election. “The 53 percent that didn’t vote for us are very worried about the party. They are concerned that it is a religious party and will introduce fundamentalism. The AKP is not giving the image of a center-right party. We need to take measures and change the image we are giving” (Bayrak, April 25).
“The closure case took us all by surprise,” Erdem admitted. “But I can’t deny that the AKP made a series of mistakes” (Bayrak, April 25).
On April 28 the national daily Vatan published the first part in a long interview with Abdullatif Sener, who served as deputy prime minister during the AKP’s first term in office from 2002 to 2007. Sener opted not to stand for re-election in the July 22, 2007, general election, although he has remained a member of the AKP’s national executive. In recent months Sener has become increasingly critical of Erdogan’s government, initially over its failure to acknowledge that the pace of economic growth was beginning to slow and more recently over the mismanagement of its attempts to lift the headscarf ban. Vatan quoted Sener as admitting that he was preparing to establish a new political party in opposition to the AKP (Vatan, April 28).
Although they privately complain about Erdogan’s haughty managerial style and his tendency to consult only with a coterie of trusted advisors, most AKP MPs are nevertheless aware that when it comes to the Turkish electorate, Sener cannot hope to compete with Erdogan’s political charisma. If Sener does form a new party, few expect it to be able to challenge the AKP at the ballot box. A new party would not need to defeat the AKP in order to damage it, however. Even a handful of defections from the AKP to a new party established by Sener would seriously undermine the AKP’s public reputation for internal unity and could leave the party vulnerable to an erosion of its parliamentary majority through losses to more formidable opponents, such as the ultranationalist National Action Party (MHP) in western and central Turkey and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) in southeastern Turkey.
However, amid all of its confusion and indecision, the AKP received a major boost on April 27 when Deniz Baykal was re-elected unopposed as chairman of the main opposition, social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). Cantankerous and deeply unpopular with the majority of Turkish social democrats, Baykal has avoided paying the penalty of a succession of dismal election performances through skillfully removing any potential rivals to his leadership from positions of influence within the party; with the result that he has become as immoveable as CHP Chairman as the party has become unelectable.