Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) in Ankara on November 7, 2017. (AFP PHOTO)
ISTANBUL, Nov. 9 (Xinhua) — In his bid to emerge victorious in the elections scheduled for 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been acting to overhaul his ruling party, sustain an ailing economy through bonuses, and adopt a discourse appealing to secular voters.
The shake-up within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is closely linked to the result of April’s referendum, as the party won only by a slim majority of 51.4 percent votes.
AKP mayors in six cities and several dozens of the party’s provincial and district heads stepped down in succession in recent months under pressure by Erdogan.
Turkey is scheduled to have local elections in March 2019 and parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously in November that year, and a neck-and-neck race is expected in the presidential election.
The president called for a shake-up within the party as soon as he chaired the AKP again following the referendum, which voted for a switch to an executive presidency amid widespread claims of rigging.
Since then, Erdogan has often talked about “metal fatigue” within the party, underlining the need for more dynamic and hardworking teams.
Mayors of Istanbul, Ankara and Bursa — Turkey’s biggest, second and fourth biggest cities respectively — are among those who had to quit, as both Istanbul, a megacity with a population of around 15 million, and Ankara with over 5 million inhabitants, voted “no” in the referendum by a very narrow margin.
Erdogan is now doing housecleaning with a view to winning the elections in 2019, observed Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist. “The only aim (of Erdogan) is to get elected president by securing 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first round,” he wrote in the Hurriyet daily late last month.
Erdogan is known to attach particular importance to big cities, especially Istanbul. “If we lose Istanbul, then we lose Turkey,” he was quoted as saying by local press.
The AKP’s narrow win in the controversial referendum sounded alarm bells for Erdogan since he needs to garner more than half the votes to be reelected president in a highly polarized society.
As many as 30 AKP provincial heads in total may be asked to leave their posts, according to press reports.
Despite Erdogan’s rejection of the main opposition’s recent calls for snap elections, it is widely argued that the AKP may be planning to hold parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
“I expect snap elections to be held on July 15 in 2018,” Meral Aksener, leader of the newly launched Good Party, said last week as she drew attention to the significance of the day for the ruling party.
The government thwarted a coup bid on the night of July 15 last year, allegedly attempted by sympathizers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen in the Turkish military.
In case Erdogan opts for early elections, a cabinet reshuffle involving several ministers may be expected in the coming months, local media said.
Ozer Sencar, head of the Ankara-based Metropoll polling company, feels that snap parliamentary and presidential polls are likely next year. “I expect Erdogan to hold the local elections after the presidential election, because it’s more difficult to manage local elections,” he told Xinhua.
He also underlined, however, that Erdogan would make a decision based on results of polls to come out in the coming months.
In case the AKP suffers a considerable loss in the local elections, it would put Erdogan in a difficult situation ahead of the presidential race, said Sencar.
In contrast, Gokhan Gunaydin, a former deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, feels that it is more probable that local rather than presidential elections are to be held in 2018.
Noting voters’ support for the AKP is in decline, he told Xinhua, “Erdogan might think that becoming successful in the local elections following renewal within the party would make it easier for him to win the presidential race.”
“If he should lose votes in the local elections, then he would have a year ahead of him to prepare for the presidential race,” he added.
IT ALL DEPENDS
Erdogan has been much accused by the opposition and others of dividing the society to be able to remain in power.
His message sent last week on the occasion of the 94th anniversary of the republic’s founding suggests, however, that he may be seeking to appeal to the segments of society to which the secular republic and its founding father Mustafa Kamal Ataturk are dear.
Erdogan used Ataturk’s full name as he praised him as the victorious commander of the country’s independence war and founder of the republic, something he had rarely done in the past.
Mahmut Ovur, a columnist with the pro-government Sabah daily, noted at the time that the emphasis on Ataturk struck the eye, describing Erdogan’s attitude as a result of the need to develop an all-embracing political discourse so as to win the presidential election.
By so doing, Erdogan was clearly targeting those who hold the republic dear, said Selvi with the Hurriyet daily.
The Islamist movement in Turkey, including the AKP, is known for its dislike to secularism although leading members of the party have rarely said so in public. As a matter of fact, Erdogan and the AKP have often been accused of settling accounts with the secular republic.
The AKP has been in power since 2002 and always won easily in the parliamentary elections.
Things might be different this time, as Aksener’s Good Party founded last month is seeking to attract many center-right and nationalist voters, most of whom voted for the AKP in the past.
Two recent polls show support of 16 percent and 19 percent for the new party.
It is widely argued that if Erdogan cannot manage to get more than half the votes in the first round of the presidential election, he may well face defeat in the run-off.
In addition to political uncertainty, the worsening economy is another stumbling block to the president’s aspirations.
While being expected to achieve a growth of more than five percent this year, Turkey’s economy is suffering from such chronic problems as high current account deficit, increasing foreign debt, rising inflation and foreign exchange rates.
The Turkish economy is the most vulnerable one in the world, according to a recent report by the S&P credit ratings agency.
Since the end of last year, the Turkish government has introduced a number of economic incentives like public loans to small businesses on easy terms, deferred taxes for them and restructuring of farmers’ debts.
As part of the efforts to revive the economy and boost growth, it also cut taxes on some goods.
On the similarly challenging foreign front, Erdogan has been adopting pragmatic policies in light of realities on the ground by forging stronger alliances with Eurasian powers to the detriment of his country’s traditional allies in the West.
In his speeches, Erdogan has been laying emphasis on foreign powers hatching a plot against Turkey including toppling the ruling party. The president and other AKP figures have also kept suggesting that some opposition parties like the main opposition and Good Party may be serving foreign powers’ interests.
Victory in the presidential election is particularly important for Erdogan, as he apparently feels that what his party has achieved during the last 15 years may be undone if the AKP loses power.
The constitutional amendments introducing an all-powerful presidency will come into effect following the election.
The president has indicated that his party’s failure in the presidential election would mean a loss for the country as well.
The ongoing purge inside the AKP may bring considerable risks in the elections, as a poll conducted by Metropoll in mid-October show that 29 percent of the AKP voters think negatively about the shake-up.
This is sure to have an adverse effect on Erdogan’s chance of getting reelected, Sencar said.
As to Gunaydin, he feels that the purge may result in both a gain and loss in AKP votes. “It all depends on how the AKP and the opposition will handle the process,” he added.