The AKP has been making some insane policy threats lately. These statements have (justifiably) caused an uproar from many Turks and Turkey watchers. However, I think we all need to take a step back and consider the possibility, or probability, that despite their current vice-like grip on Turkish politics, the neither Erdoğan nor the AKP in general have the power or mandate to carry through with many of these proposed “reforms.” It is too early to predict the long-term consequences, but Erdoğan’s antics seem to be backfiring and causing even some former supporters to question his leadership.
The first piece of good news is that Erdoğan is not going to get his wish to become the first American-style President of Turkey anytime soon. The commission tasked with reforming the current constitution, which was created by the generals in the wake of 1980 military coup, has fallen apart. The AKP had already agreed in August not to push for a presidential system to be included in the new constitution. Turkey still desperately needs a more liberal constitution but the AKP does not seem to be ready to make the concessions needed to make this happen.
Erdoğan’s rhetoric over the past year has necessitated almost non-stop damage control from the other high-ranking members of the current administration, namely President Gül, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç . It appears that at least Arınç is getting sick of being the PM’s apologist. He publicly made statements both during the Gezi protests and the recent co-ed housing controversy that clearly articulated his opposition to the Erdoğan’s position. In an act of censorship shocking even in Turkey, critical statements Arınç made regarding PM Erdoğan were censored by the state TV network, which Arınç himself is tasked with overseeing. There were even rumors that Arınç would be quitting politics after both controversies but it seems he will be staying in government at least until the 2015 elections. Gül, who in some polls rivals Erdoğan’s popularity, has not been as confrontational in his opposition. However, many of his speeches as of late has notably contradicted Erdoğan on the same talking points. Gül very well may be trying to distance himself from Erdoğan in anticipation of the 2015 elections. There has been much speculation as whether Gül will run for Prime Minister or continue to occupy the position of President, but it is too early to tell. What is clear is that Gül wishes to maintain his reputation as a moderate figure amongst the increasingly polarizing voices coming out of the AKP.
Erdoğan’s antagonism isn’t just limited to within in the party. For reasons that are not quite clear to even experts on the subject, Erdoğan has begun a campaign to close down the private extra-curricular “cram” schools that have become a fixture of the Turkish educational landscape. This proposal is clearly directed at the Gülen movement, who control about a quarter of these institutions. The Gülen Movement’s followers generally fall within the AKP’s core demographic. However, since the Gezi protests the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gülen, has made some official statements that could be interpreted as critical of the current government’s increasingly conservative bent. The announcement of Erdoğan’s intention to close down study centers has started a war of words between Gülen and Erdoğan. The impact of this rupture between arguably the two most powerful figures in Turkey is hard to predict, if for no other reason than the secretive nature of the Gülen Movement has left its scale largely unknown.
The fight against the closure of privately owned schools has already been taken up by groups outside of the Gülen Movement. These “cram” school have become an indispensable stop-gap in the inadequate Turkish educational system. Though the constitutional court is expected to overturn any law that would ban them, the damage has already been done. Erdoğan once again has stubbornly continued to insist that these schools need to be closed, despite widespread public outcry and protests against such a measure. The issue of education touches all segments of Turkish society, thus this issue may have a greater impact on the AKP base than the Gezi protests. The opposition within the AKP has already been apparent. One AKP minister who opposed the proposed prep school closures quit the party on Saturday after being actively marginalized and threatened with an internal disciplinary measures.
Loudly and publicly declaring the intention to implement politically or legally impossible reforms is par for the course for the AKP. The direction of the latest round of the perennial threats to reconvert the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque illustrates this trend nicely. At a speech marking the occasion of a new carpet museum on the premises November 16, Bülent Arınç stated that “we currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque … we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.” Then last week it was reported that former monastery turned mosque turned ruin in another part of the old city would in fact be soon renovated and opened as a mosque. This property just happened to be administered by the Hagia Sophia Museum. As I have stated previously, any real attempt to turn the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be an international and domestic political disaster. However, this latest announcement regarding the monastery seems to be part of a quiet campaign to turn lesser known Byzantine churches into mosques, often without the knowledge or support of the local community. Similarly, Erdoğan and the AKP may talk of instituting extremely conservative social policies, but the best they can do now is chip away at laws affecting only the very secular population (such as those associated with the sale of alcohol).
Significantly, the latest controversies, mostly sparked by Erdoğan, have begun to touch the pious majority. No political party has yet emerged that could rival the AKP’s currently numbers. However, if a combination of the opposition parties could together take a chunk out of the AKP’s 50%, the hegemony of the AKP could be greatly diminished. The regional elections in March 2014 will give us a better sense of how the social and political unrest has affect the AKP’s popularity. In the meantime we should take the AKP’s policy threats with a grain of salt, but continue to watch for attempts to institute conservative social policies in small but significant ways.