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July 15, 2012, Sunday

Reshuffling of cards

As I indicated in a previous column, the third term in office of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) marks an intensive search for consolidating its conservative identity within the Milli Görüş (National View) flank of the massive Sunni-based political segment from which it had originated over a decade ago.

An additional ingredient seems to be the disgruntled voters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is leading this move. The AKP is, objectively, still the unchallenged political engine which continues to transform Turkey. Erdoğan has already entered a “triple elections” mood: Turkey will soon face national (in 2015) and local elections (in 2014), and for the first time voters (and not Parliament) will choose the next president (in 2014).

Parliament dominated by the AKP may -- depending on the game plan by Erdoğan -- set a joint date for all three; say, in 2014. Whether in a package or not, these polls will, to a large extent, define the future political path of Turkey, and more crucially, the structures and relations of power which will define the true nature of the republic on the way to its 100th anniversary in 2023.

There is no doubt the AKP has been the locomotive of the loosely connected group which in the beginning of the millennium demanded systemic change, reforms, justice and democracy. If it has been successful to a considerable degree, it depended certainly on a de-facto social alliance, both in urban and rural areas. Many macro factors, led by the economy, led to the fact that it still enjoys every second voter's support. It reached the peak of its popularity in the September 2010 referendum, when it received 58 percent backing from both left and right.

It presents a rather lucid political picture for Erdoğan and also shows the limitations of his aspirations to become a president endowed with extended executive powers. He knows that a new constitution is an expectation of the masses, but he needs to navigate delicately in order to secure a clear absolute majority of votes for his presidency. That the AKP cruises on a 50-53 percent majority means that nothing can be taken for granted. He needs to reach out to some parts of the “alliance."

Erdoğan knows that without the continuity of a solid, single party-based majority government and Parliament, his desired presidency would be a bumpy journey. But the looseness and social breadth of the alliance will force him to tread with care.

What will he do? The stalling of the reform process and flip-flopping on many key political issues has already indicated that his priority is to remain focused on restructuring the power mechanisms in Ankara and on the local level.

When he looks into the various flanks of the alliance, he sees trouble and opportunities. The demands of the liberals, democratic leftists and the Hizmet movement have proven to be costly and arduous. The stalemate with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)-dominated Kurdish political movement has shown, time and again, that the loyalty of a critical number of Kurds to it remains rock solid. His attempts to speed up reform on the Kurdish issue in a meaningful manner remain politically risky.

This serves -- and will in the future be very helpful -- to explain his directions to reshape the AKP, add fresh blood and maintain its pattern as an invincible force. He has been flirting with the MHP's voter base for some months now. Now comes his open invitation to Numan Kurtulmuş, the leader of the Voice of the People Party (HAS Party), to join the AKP.

To outside eyes, it may seem odd that such a parachuting operation would work. But not in Turkey, and certainly not in its post-Islamist domain of politics: both gentlemen have had the same type of religious background, and both quit (in their own time) Necmettin Erbakan's dogmatic line. Both the AKP and the HAS Party have the same social -- and sectarian -- backgrounds with more or less the same lyrics but different melodies.

Kurtulmuş may say yes. This may even end the HAS Party. Whatever the outcome, the moves of such a nature show us that Erdoğan is inclined to take the easy way out in order to consolidate an (exclusively) Sunni-based, post National View-dominated, vertically structured (as opposed to the early AKP between 2001-2007), more conservative and more nationalist identity. If so, we will soon witness -- once more -- a debate on a Malaysian model rather than a more liberal one.

The more crystallized Erdoğan's shift in politics -- on including the HAS Party, the MHP and the Grand Unity Party (BBP) -- become, the larger the opportunities for the rest of the bloc which falls short of 50 percent. What will the Republican People's Party (CHP), the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), independent liberals and the tiny parties of the left do? How will the stance of the Hizmet movement, a significant social engine of transformation, be affected. As discontent grows with daily politics, answers are already on their way.

Previous articles of the columnist