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September 02, 2012, Sunday

Erdoğan boldly continues on his way, but will Kılıçdaroğlu?

Turkey's volatile and vulnerable political agenda once more stands ready to be confronted, and most of its color will be defined by two main rivals, as the “summer that everyone wants to forget” is finally over.

Lately, both leaders have been busy with their own parties. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in intense activity to prepare the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its historically critical fourth Congress, due at the end of this month. Meanwhile, Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is now back from Cape Town, where he was elected vice president of the Socialist International (SI).

In many convergent and divergent ways, Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu know they have tough duties before them. The former has already announced that he would no longer stand as a candidate for chairman of the AKP and would also leave politics after the national elections (due in 2015, but we can guess an earlier date). Erdoğan is determined not to amend the party bylaws, which say that one can stay in active politics as an elected parliamentary deputy no longer than three election periods.

Given the period of power for the party, the fourth Congress will mean a very radical change in its upper echelons. Around two-thirds of the current Cabinet will have to go: that includes names such as Ali Babacan, Binali Yıldırım, Bülent Arınç, Sadullah Ergin, Beşir Atalay, Egemen Bağış, Faruk Çelik, Taner Yıldız and İdris Naim Şahin. Others, in party organs, such as Ömer Çelik, Reha Denemeç and Hüseyin Çelik, will also follow the exit line. The number of deputies facing the same fate is also huge.

Erdoğan's project is to “rejuvenate” the AKP as he also -- as a response to the assessments that it will implode like former President Turgut Özal's Motherland Party (ANAP) after him -- institutionalizes it. The strategic target is to still be the ruling power in 2023 -- the 100th anniversary of the republic's foundation -- by a series of major tactical moves to remain there.

After the congress Erdoğan is expected to go for a minor scale reshuffle in the Cabinet and decide on the names that will carry the party through the national and presidential elections due consecutively in the next two years. This is to take place while the work on a draft constitution is also -- sort of! -- expected to proceed to the end.

The magnitude of these enormous pending changes is not yet fully grasped by the domestic or international public. As it proceeds, it will unleash many very unexpected dynamics forward and possibly lead to turbulence within the pious, post-Islamist political and electoral segment.

Therefore, we are all starting to observe an Erdoğan who spends a lot of time meeting young(er) figures of the conservative right and inviting them to join the party. One of them was Numan Kurtulmuş (of the Voice of the People Party [HAS Party]), and the other day, another crucial meeting ended -- seemingly happily -- with Süleyman Soylu, a former leader of the tiny Democrat Party, and a man known for his political courage during hardship, when the AKP was subjected to the e-memo (2007) and closure (2008). These moves are now expected to continue with Fatih Erbakan (Necmettin Erbakan's son, active in the Felicity Party [SP]) and Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu, chairman of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges [TOBB]).

The project is said to be a continuity of the AKP, reflecting a social coalition it has stood upon, but behind it all, Erdoğan's grand ambition is clearly visible: By assembling key figures in the organization, with promises of glory, he aims to achieve a guarantee for an upward move as an empowered president of the republic, for a decade. So, it will be exciting to see whether or how far he will succeed in it. The end result of his efforts will definitely help shape a Turkey whose bumpy ride goes on, while its path raises powerful concerns of authoritarian rule.

Kılıçdaroğlu's Cape Town adventure is also worth a mention in this context. His election as a vice president (there are 30 of them altogether) is already “sold” to the Turkish public as a big move. But the real significance of the election no doubt weighs much more heavily on how deeply the SI cares about emerging democracy in Turkey and its prospects than Kılıçdaroğlu and his politics.

It has been a constant concern of many Socialist friends of Turkey that the CHP is unable to transform itself into a real social democrat movement and an agony that it is fully stuck in Kemalism, which has very little -- if any -- to do with what SI ideology is all about.

Nevertheless, on the positive side, Kılıçdaroğlu won prestige in Cape Town, and whether or not he will proceed with that international political investment put on him to transform, rejuvenate and prepare his party for a real political competition is a wide open question.

So far, he has chosen to play in midfield and deserves to be called “Mr. Hesitant.” For his and the country's future, he had better watch what his archrival does with the AKP and draw the proper lessons from his bold methodology.

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