Can the AKP survive without Erdogan?

Love him or hate him, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been the most influential actor in Turkish politics for the last 12 years and will possibly remain the most popular for the next decade. However, in what role — president or prime minister — remains to be seen, as there will be consequences for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) if Erdogan packs his bags and heads to the president’s office.

There is concern the AKP may crumble. This has happened before when a “charismatic” personality has quit to become president: Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party (ANAP) and Suleyman Demirel’s True Path Party (DYP). So how likely is it that the AKP will meet the same end? Listening to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, we may believe that the chances are slim. According to Davutoglu, the AKP is “not just a political party but also a great historical movement … the AKP will continue to exist through institutionalization through the next ten years and even through the centuries!” The view that “the AKP will live forever” is not shared by the main opposition party. It hopes that Erdogan’s departure will leave such a gaping hole that the AKP will quickly erode. I find this rather wishful thinking.

While Erdogan seems to have his heart set on becoming president, he also has every intention of continuing to lead the AKP and the government. And for loyal AKP voters I am not sure it will make much difference to their vote, given the lack of a viable alternative in Turkey. Erdogan is not a quiet “wallflower.” He is loud and ever-present. As I have previously written, Erdogan has “l’état, c’est moi syndrome.” His blinding belief in majoritarian rule seems to make him believe that he has the right to do whatever he wants.

Turkey is preparing for a transition to a de facto semi-presidential system, despite the fact that the president’s powers and authorities will remain as they are now. While it may be impossible de jure for Erdogan to have his hands on all the levers and buttons, de facto he is more than capable of doing it, given that he will be choosing the new prime minister and chairman of the party. With a pliant and obedient prime minister, there is no end to what Erdogan could end up doing, even downgrading the role of the prime minister. Everything is possible. De facto, the situation will be made possible not by expanding the president’s powers as outlined in the Constitution, but by weakening the prime minister via the president. And bingo — as the prime minister becomes ineffective, Erdogan will fill the gap.

However, it is not clear which AKP personality is ready to “sacrifice” themselves for Erdogan. President Abdullah Gul has said that he does not want to be part of this scheme. As there cannot be a single scrap of doubt that the new prime minister will not “turn around” and decide he wants to run the country, it requires an exceptionally loyal person.

While many names are floating around, some are definitely not watertight options. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has on several occasions criticized or opposed Erdogan’s policy choices. Despite Davutoglu’s loyalty to Erdogan it seems the prime minister has concerns over Davutoglu’s ambitions, in light of his frequently lofty speeches. Ali Babacan, deputy prime minister responsible for the economy, would have trouble with Erdogan’s advisers and unless a deal could be struck to have his own such team, it would seem difficult for him to take this post in the event he would even want it.

There are two that could fit the bill: Deputy Prime Minister Emrullah Isler and former Speaker Mehmet Ali Sahin, who have both been particularly loyal to Erdogan. The only snag could be going into next year’s general election and their ability to campaign. As president, Erdogan would not be allowed roll up his sleeves — although knowing him I am sure he could find some way to get around this.

Erdogan will carefully calculate the survivability of the AKP if he takes up the presidency. And we may need to return to the Gul factor. There is a chance Gul will run for another term, hence Erdogan would run for another term as prime minister, although this would still involve him amending an internal AKP rule. Ultimately, we should expect many ambiguities and surprises in the coming months.