AK Party to get facelift as challenges mount for government in Turkey

AK Party to get facelift as challenges mount for government in Turkey
# 27 September 2012 23:54 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in power for almost a decade, is set to overhaul the party administration on Sunday in a bid to keep the party’s mass appeal to voters in the upcoming local, presidential and national elections, all lined up back-to-back starting next year, APA reports.
The recruiting of high-profile people as new members of the AK Party, some of whom led smaller parties in the past, comes amid the AK Party’s struggle to keep a favorable rating at around 50 percent of the electorate. If there is any indication, recent polling numbers suggest the party has lost some ground to the undecided block among voters, a worrisome development for AK Party leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan.

As the two most important challenges the country faces -- the surge in terrorism and a worsening economic outlook -- have started to eat away government support among Turks, the veteran politician, who led the party uncontested for 11 years, rushed to put a new face on his party to respond to these challenges.

ErdoÄŸan gave the green light for the extensive overhaul of the AK Party administration in July when addressing participants at a provincial congress of his party in EskiÅŸehir. He said the AK Party would be restructured after the party congress on Sept. 30 to prepare the party’s policies for 2023, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the republic.

He realizes that many promises he made as part of the party program during the election campaign have not been put into practice and is afraid of a voter backlash. ErdoÄŸan understands that the Turkish people will hold him accountable for election pledges. The AK Party campaigned most on the pledge to deliver a new constitution by getting rid of the 30-year-old military-era Constitution. The issue was unfortunately delegated to the ill-functioning Reconciliation Commission in Parliament that many expect will be unable to deliver anything because of the rigid full-consensus rule adopted among all four parties represented in Parliament.

Last week’s signing up of former Constitutional Court rapporteur Osman Can by ErdoÄŸan may be an early indication that his government will push for the alternative plan to adopt a new constitution in case the parliamentary commission work falls apart. Can made a name for himself after advising the top court in March 2008 to reject an indictment presented to the court for the closure of the AK Party. The court, however, announced that it would take up the case but later decided not to shut down the AK Party on anti-secular allegations.

ErdoÄŸan also anticipates that with the new recruits from the center-right and conservative political spectrum his party would appeal to a larger swath of conservative voters. This would help serve as a wave breaker in the decline of the popularity of the AK Party government after serving the country for three consecutive terms. He convinced the popular leader of the Voice of the People Party (HAS Party), Numan KurtulmuÅŸ, to join the AK Party after dissolving the HAS Party two weeks ago.

KurtulmuÅŸ told Today’s Zaman that he believes the merger will help unite political forces to cope with the social, economic and foreign policy challenges that Turkey faces to pave the way for a new Turkey. "We hopefully can help regenerate the cells in Turkey’s governing party," he said, emphasizing that his team has completed detailed studies on many of the problems in Turkey.

Yet others have different perspective on KurtulmuÅŸ’s joining the AK Party, however. Masum Türker, chairman of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), claimed that the AK Party calling on KurtulmuÅŸ to join its ranks was a political maneuver by ErdoÄŸan aimed at eliminating political alternatives. To substantiate his claim, Türker offers the results of an opinion poll conducted on behalf of the AK Party recently that indicated 27 percent of AK Party voters were shown to be at the center of the political spectrum, with liberal or social democrat tendencies and favoring secularism.

“When asked which political party they would vote for if not the AK Party, the majority of the voters within this 27 percent centrist group made it clear that their next choice would be the HAS Party, while some would go for the DSP,” Türker told Today’s Zaman.

The same can be said for the former leader of the Democrat Party (DP), Süleyman Soylu, who officially signed up with the AK Party earlier this month. The DP is one of the two oldest parties in Turkey and is still strong in the West, especially along the shoreline from the Marmara Sea to the Aegean. With Soylu, ErdoÄŸan aims to garner stronger support from Turkey’s center-right voters who feel passionate about the long tradition of the DP.

In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Soylu explained the reasons for his membership in the AK Party. “The foreign appeal of the AK Party has played a role in my decision to join this party. It represents stability, confidence, and reforms. The Party Congress on Sunday will give these messages to the international audience as well. Not only does the party bring the state and people together but also offers a democratic model for a number of countries in the Middle East and North African region,” he said.

The current leader of the DP, Gültekin Uysal, begs to differ on that however, claiming that Soylu has contradicted himself by joining the AK Party because he used to be one of the fierce critics of the government in the past. “I was dismayed by his statement during the ceremony with ErdoÄŸan during which he said ‘I am back in my home’,” Uysal said in an interview with Today’s Zaman. He asked, “Does that mean he was not home when Soylu was leading the DP.”

While trying to put a new face on the decade-old AK Party with the replacement of the old administration, ErdoÄŸan runs the risk of alienating long-time AK Party executives as well. Over 70 deputies from the AK Party, including 17 cabinet ministers and some senior party administrators, will have to be ejected from their positions according to party bylaws. ErdoÄŸan signaled that some of these people may be nominated as mayoral candidates in local elections in the fall of 2013. Though the move was apparently aimed at appeasing old dogs in the party, there is simply not enough space to accommodate all of them, paving the way for the emergence of resentful factions.

This has created uneasiness within the AK Party and even fueled speculation that a new party may emerge within the AK Party if or when it splits. The marginalized politicians may very well be a conduit for that process, some anticipate. The rumor in the capital has been that these disgruntled politicians are courting President Abdullah Gül to establish a new party. There has been no indication so far that Gül wants to form a new party, however. He indicated that he will make his decision whether or not to run for another term in the presidential election when the time comes.

There is also another challenge for the AK Party which received almost 60 percent of the Kurdish votes in the last national election held last year. In particular, religious Kurdish politicians who endorse the party wholeheartedly want to see AK Party management fairly represented with Kurdish deputies. Orhan MiroÄŸlu, prominent Kurdish intellectual, was mentioned as a new face for the upcoming party congress, although it is not certain yet that he will join the party.

Kurdish politician have become increasingly nervous over the surge in the fight with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has resulted in many deaths on a daily basis. They ask the government to pursue the Kurdish initiative while tackling hardcore militants with military measures.

While tidying matters in the AK Party with new faces, ErdoÄŸan seems to have set his mind to stand as a candidate for the presidential post due to take place in August 2014, though he has not yet declared this openly. Since the party’s bylaws also do not allow him to be elected as chairman of the party for more than three consecutive terms, the only way for him to go is to the presidential office.