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Turkey’s Ruling Party Makes Major Changes Ahead of November Election

By Jessica Michek

Friday, October 16, 2015

After failing to secure a majority in the June parliamentary elections, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has embarked on a polarizing strategy of targeting the Kurds to win back nationalist votes in snap elections, which will be held on November 1 after parties failed to form a governing coalition. In pursuit of victory at the polls, the AKP has made significant changes to both party leadership and its list of candidates. These actions suggest that the party is being pulled in several directions: between nationalists and Kurds, and between purging those seen as disloyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and retaining well-known names in order to achieve electoral success.

Changes to Party Executive

At the AKP’s Extraordinary Party Congress in September, its 50-member Central Decision and Administrative Board (MKYK) was significantly overhauled, with 31 of its members replaced.

While he was not physically present at the AKP conference, the newly elected MKYK bears Erdoğan’s stamp. In the days before the party congress, rumors flew that Erdoğan planned to put up one of his loyalists, former Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim, to replace Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as party chair. While that did not come to pass and Davutoğlu ran unopposed, the trade-off appeared to be letting Erdoğan unilaterally dictate the candidate list for the executive board, one that pushed out moderates and critics in favor of Erdoğan loyalists. An unnamed former minister told reporters that, due to intervention by the Turkish president, “not a single confidant of Davutoğlu could find a way, despite the efforts of the chairman, to the executive board.”

Most notably, pushed out of the board was Bulent Arinc, one of the party’s three founders, who criticized Erdoğan ahead of the AKP congress, saying “We were a party of ‘us,’ but now we have turned into a party of ‘me.’”Also excluded were former deputy prime minister in charge of the economy Ali Babacan and former Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, who had pushed back against Erdoğan’s economic policies. Among the new appointees to the board was Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and other close personal advisors to Erdoğan.

Changes to Candidate List

While Turkey’s other parties kept their candidate lists largely the same, the AKP, which blamed its underperformance in June on “list mistakes,” overhauled its candidate list, replacing 53 out of the 258 MPs elected in June. By comparison, the CHP replaced only three candidates on its list compared to June, and the MHP removed eight.

With the party focused on courting nationalist votes, the AKP overhauled its list in Turkey’s western provinces. Most notably, the AKP added Tuğrul Türkeş to its roster of candidates, formerly an MHP deputy from Ankara and son of the party’s founder. The MHP, which had declared it would not take part in the AKP-led interim government, announced that it would expel Türkeş from the party after he bucked the party line and accepted a position in the interim government. Türkeş formally announced his resignation from the party before being added to the AKP’s candidate list, where the party expects him to win back votes from the MHP in Ankara.

More surprisingly, while the AKP has focused the majority of its electoral strategy to date on exacerbating Kurdish tensions to regain nationalist votes at the expense of Kurdish votes, the AKP also altered its candidate roster in eastern and southeastern provinces, indicating that the party thinks its recent behavior hasn’t irreparably alienated it from the Kurds.

While the AKP has historically done well in Kurdish regions, drawing support from religiously conservative Kurds, it lost a significant number of votes in June due to both the HDP’s decision to run as a political party and the AKP’s poor choice of candidates. Now, the AKP hopes that it can win back votes in the Kurdish Southeast and push the HDP below the 10 percent parliamentary threshold. The AKP is attempting to accomplish this by tying the HDP to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group, and presenting itself as an alternative party for Kurds that don’t support the PKK.

In pursuit of this strategy, the AKP shifted Beşir Atalay, an AKP heavyweight known for his role in initiating the Kurdish peace process, to run in the Eastern province of Van instead of in Central Anatolia. The HDP won an overwhelming victory in Van in June, securing seven of the electoral district’s eight parliamentary seats—including three that had previously gone to AKP candidates. The candidates put forward by the AKP in Diyarbakir and Sanliurfa, as well as Istanbul and Ankara, large cities with significant Kurdish populations, also show that the AKP believes it can win back the Kurdish vote, despite its anti-Kurdish rabblerousing since June.

The June election saw the AKP welcoming a cadre of new, younger politicians, who had no bases of their own and would be loyal only to Erdoğan. Since that strategy proved unsuccessful, the party relaxed its internal three-term limit for parliamentary deputies. Now, the AKP has welcomed back 24 well-known members of the party—even members who are not staunch Erdoğan loyalists—in hopes of regaining lost votes.

Those pushed out of the MKYK still found themselves included on the party’s roster of candidates, due to their long history with the party and name recognition. Babacan and Şimşek, as well as Atalay, who was also pushed out of the MKYK, were added to the party’s list in strategic districts for the AKP, and are poised to act as electoral linchpins, indicating that, while Erdoğan would like to purge the party of any elements that are not completely loyal to his leadership and vision, he doesn’t think that he can win without them.

KEYWORDS: TURKEY, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, AHMET DAVUTOGLU, AKP, KURDS