Dissent in Turkey’s ruling AKP grows as clique targets justice minister

With the conflicts within Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) coming to a head this Autumn, Turkish commentators have been searching for signs of how deep the rifts in the ruling party go.

The dissent has already spurred two breakaway political movements, led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, that threaten to poach significant support from Islamist and more liberal circles in the AKP.

Now the question is whether these new movements can trigger a mutiny among AKP lawmakers that could endanger the ruling coalition’s 41-seat majority in parliament.

Ahval’s Ankara correspondent, Zulfikar Doğan, this week reported that 10 AKP deputies had pledged their support to Davutoğlu’s movement, after the former prime minister and threw senior allies preempted their expulsion from the party by resigning on Sept. 13.

The deputies, Doğan said, were planning to bide their time before resigning from the party themselves.

Another rumour reported by Doğan said the dissenting AKP deputies would vote against Erdoğan on important legal amendments rather than resigning, a mutiny that would likely result in their expulsion from the party.

The dissent is likely down to anger at the current direction of the government as much as it is motivated by internal power struggles that have seen party stalwarts replaced by Erdoğan loyalists.

Ahval editor-in-chief Yavuz Baydar this week quoted a European source as saying the Turkish state had ceased functioning thanks to the “flunkeys and losers” promoted on the basis of their “100 percent” loyalty to Erdoğan.”

“And, to do proper business, everybody is waiting for the day he is gone. They choose to stay in the trenches. Confidence has evaporated. Until that day, we shall see, I am afraid, a free fall,” the source said.

The flight of close to a million AKP members since last year is a concrete sign of the level of discontent in the party. But there is a big difference between whispers of dissent and actually sticking one’s head over the parapet. Whether the whispers will transform into a real challenge to the AKP is impossible to know until lawmakers lay their cards on the table.

Until that point is reached, it seems inevitable that speculation will be stoked by news reports on the most visible cracks in the ruling party: the divisions said to be wrought by the activities of the so-called “Pelican” clique.

The Pelicanists are a difficult phenomenon to pin down, but are generally accepted to hold vast influence in the AKP. From its headquarters in a Bosporus-side mansion in Istanbul, the group is believed to use columns in high-circulation media, appearances on televised panels and social media to pave the way for policy and target enemies within and outside the AKP.

It was using these tactics that the group earned its name in 2016 with the release of a “Pelican file” listing disagreements between Davutoğlu, then prime minister, and Erdoğan. Davutoğlu was forced to resign over the rift.

Then, as now, the rifts were beginning to appear in the ruling party. But then, any chance of a challenge to Erdoğan from within the AKP was dashed by the failed coup attempt in July 2016, which ushered in two years of emergency rule and ultimately a new governance system with vastly enhanced powers for the president.

Unease at the Pelican group’s influence has only grown in the meantime. The group has been blamed both for the divisive electoral campaign run by the AKP this year – the ruling party accused opposition leaders of consorting with terrorists – and for pushing for a rerun of the Istanbul election.

The AKP’s humiliating defeat in the Istanbul rerun in June led some to believe Erdoğan would distance himself from the group, until the president’s visit to the group’s headquarters at the Bosphorus Global think tank in August.

Since then, the group has continued its activities as before. This week, Sabah journalist Dilek Güngör set a target on Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül, an Erdoğan appointee, in a column that suggested Gülenists, the religious group held responsible for the 2016 coup attempt, were still active in the judiciary under Gül’s watch.

In a country where the most tenuous links to the group have ended careers, the suggestion that a minister is allowing Gülenists to continue operating in the judiciary implies a serious level of collusion. Gül hit back, saying his accusers were the ones using Gülenist tactics, and AKP accounts flocked to a social media campaign in support of the minister.

When the Justice Ministry threatened to launch renewed legal action against a businessman said to be close to the Pelican clique this week, Turkish press reported it as a riposte from the minister.

Investigative journalist and opposition lawmaker Ahmet Şık said the spat was the sign of escalating infighting within the ruling party that could overwhelm it.

The opposition will be hoping this will translate into a sufficient drop in support for the ruling party to knock it off its perch after nearly two decades in power. Polling on that as so far been inconclusive.

A survey by Avrasya Research raised opposition hopes early in September by placing the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) at the head of the pack. But this could well be a freak result. Another polling company, ADA, showed the ruling AKP’s bloc as easily the main contender to form a government if elections were held this month, in the first survey that included support for a new party founded by Babacan or Davutoğlu.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.