After a week of open strife within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to his 1,150-room palace yesterday. Shortly after their meeting, news broke that the AKP would have an extraordinary congress on May 22 to choose a new party chair, and that Davutoğlu would not seek reelection to his post. Turkish citizens, who are used to military takeovers, have now witnessed their country’s first “palace coup.”
Following his move from prime minister to president in 2014, Erdoğan was required to relinquish his party membership, as the Constitution stipulates that the country’s top office must be nonpartisan. Although Davutoğlu, then foreign minister, replaced Erdoğan both as party leader and prime minister, the president has refused to hand him the reins of the government or party. The president’s now-public split with Davutoğlu is the most significant rift the Islamist-rooted AKP has faced since Erdoğan co-founded it 15 years ago.
Like other AKP congresses, there will again be a single candidate – hand-picked by Erdogan himself – who will receive all of the votes. There are two likely candidates. The minister of transport, maritime affairs and communication, Binali Yıldırım, is the president’s right-hand man and allegedly in charge of his slush funds. The minister of energy and natural resources, Berat Albayrak, has the distinct advantage of being Erdoğan’s son-in-law.
Over the last two years, Erdoğan has sidelined AKP heavyweights such as the former President Abdullah Gül and former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, both of whom enjoy popularity among the party’s base. Unseating Davutoğlu – who has a smaller support base – will not be a challenge unless it leads to the formation of a new conservative, Islamist-tinged party of disgruntled AKP elites. This would represent a lethal threat to both Erdoğan and his future protégé, and a dramatic reversal of fortunes for a man who has built a career pursuing one-man rule.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir