by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 6, Ramadan, 1433)
As leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for many years.
During his term as prime minister, he has introduced numerous changes in the political architecture of the country. By challenging the powerful secular oligarchy that controlled the army, media and economy for nearly a century, and thanks to his political acumen and strong public support, Erdogan has won after a long struggle. Owing to Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey despite its shortcomings has now become a powerful political and economic player in the region. However, Erdogan’s era will be over in two years’ time due to limits he set for himself. When he was establishing the AKP he was opposed to a few individuals dominating Turkish politics by clinging to the leadership position of political parties for decades regardless of their performance in elections. Erdogan felt this was one of the factors that led to stagnation in Turkish politics. In order to avoid the AKP suffering the same fate, he introduced a rule that limited one person’s leadership to three consecutive terms. After that, the person must not seek re-election.
The rule seems to have worked as its ultimate aim was and remains the end of one-man leadership to open the way for younger generation of leaders to emerge. But it also has drawbacks. The AKP’s success is largely due to the charisma of Erdogan who has been the most popular political leader in the country. With Erdogan’s current term coming to an end if his successor does not have the same level of charisma, this might undermine many years of hard work and struggle and lead to the demise of AKP rule.
Considering the great challenges the AKP faces domestically and internationally, a leadership crisis would be tantamount to a catastrophe for the country. Ali Bulac, an influential Muslim thinker and columnist for the Turkish language newspaper Zaman, mentioned these problems: “There has been exhaustion in the upper ranks of the party in general due to ruling the country for more than a decade. Further, the capitalist economic model that the AKP has been implementing which is based primarily on borrowing and spending and thus circulation of huge sums of money in the market, has given a wrong sense of economic boom. Lacking the necessary level of production, money circulation will eventually come to an end and if alternative models are not provided, Turkey might find itself in a similar position to Spain and Greece.” These are serious warnings indeed.
Turkey has also in recent months abandoned its “zero problem” policy and become entangled in conflicts with its neighbors. This is especially the case with Syria where Turkey has been unnecessarily aggressive and hastily cut off all relations with Damascus on the assumption that Bashar al-Asad will be toppled soon. However, other developments, especially Russia’s strong support for Syria has shown that Turkey’s policies have not been carefully thought out. Aside from the political implications of the situation, which might lead to a destructive war between Turkey and Syria, Ankara has also suffered huge financial losses.
Finally, due to a power struggle, Erdogan has been at odds with powerful Muslim groups that have been trying to increase Islamic awareness in the country. The issue needs to be resolved for the future of Islam in the country.
As a shrewd politician, Erdogan is fully aware of the gravity of the situation and has been looking for a suitable person to succeed him as party leader. However, this is not an easy task; Erdogan’s dominant personality has eclipsed and sidelined all potential candidates within the ranks of the AKP. The only candidate that may come close is the current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who has strong intellectual credentials but lacks popular public support.
Thus Erdogan is left with few options but to turn to someone from outside the party. As was reported in the Crescent International (July 2011), the most suitable candidate for the post-Erdogan period is Numan Kurtulmus, leader of Voice of the Public Party (HAS Party). Kurtulmus has become a prominent figure in Turkish politics thanks to his charisma and popularity among the people. Although his party did not do well during the last elections, he is an outstanding politician and would very likely pose a real challenge to the AKP in the post-Erdogan period.
Kurtulmus and Erdogan are old friends as they are both students of the iconic Islamic leader of the Milli Gorus Movement and worked together when they were part of this movement, hence Erdogan knows that Kurtulmus would make a good prime minister. Erdogan has on numerous occasions invited Kurtulmus to his party and offered him ministerial positions. However, Kurtulmus declined these offers until now. Erdogan has not given up and made another attempt on July 12 in a meeting with Kurtulmus. Erdogan officially invited Kurtulmus to join the AKP. According to reports, unlike previous occasions, this time Kurtulmus’ response was positive. There is speculation that at the end of Ramadan, Kurtulmus will join the AKP bringing his entire party with him.
There has been no official confirmation from either party regarding what position Kurtulmus will hold in the AKP. It is, however, strongly suggested that he is expected to replace Erdogan once the latter’s term as prime minister expires. According to numerous reports, Erdogan is planning to run for the presidency when incumbent President Abdullah Gul’s term comes to an end. It is expected that Kurtulmus will replace him as leader of the AKP and consequently become the new prime minister of Turkey.
Under Numan Kurtulmus’ leadership the AKP might be able to solve the domestic challenges and restore the frosty relationship with neighboring countries. Under the influence of current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan has decided to side with the US, Europe and Saudi alliance in the crisis in Syria. Kurtulmus’ approach to Syria has been more balanced and he has criticized Erdogan on Syria warning him several times about the escalation of the crisis. He has suggested that Turkey and Iran should cooperate to solve the Syrian crisis: “Turkey and Iran are two important countries in the region. Since the beginning (of the conflict) we have suggested that the problem can be solved by a peace plan led by Turkey and Iran. We again repeat this, if Turkey and Iran work together there it might lead to positive results in the region. The problem can only be resolved through an alliance of Turkey and Iran…”
All the indications are that Kurtulmus would make a good substitute for Erdogan if he can make it to the office of the prime minister. Yet, there are some people within the AKP who might revolt against Erdogan for bringing an outsider to replace him. Also, there is no guarantee that Kurtulmus will continue his present discourse once he is elected to office. However, considering his impeccable track record it is still worthwhile to give him a chance and see what he can deliver. At the very least, he would do no worse than what the present AKP leadership has done at least in its international dealings.