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October 04, 2012, Thursday

Actors on display

It is never too early in Turkish politics for predictions and scenarios, in particular if we consider the fact that the pace and content between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) congress and the election of the next president will be full of promises, sharp swings, surprises and resolutions.

The new era of politics will be shaped on the basis of realpolitik. The time of collective decisions and acts is definitely over. The process led by visionary principles -- such as EU membership and the completion of a democratic, comprehensive constitutional system -- will have to give way to political entrenchments and negotiations on highly personal manners. It seems time now for an enforcing of the sharing of the power delicately accumulated within and at the top of the ruling AKP. The new reshuffle of cards, in that sense, would encompass outside actors such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but also minor parties like the Grand Unity Party (BBP) and the Felicity Party (SP) on the conservative far right.

There are elements one can take for granted in the developing story. Abiding by the AKP bylaws and preparing for an exit from executive politics, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is irreversibly determined to stand as a candidate for the presidency. He will, therefore, push to its limits a new system that would allow him to remain with his party affiliations, with enhanced powers in that post. He may soon unleash a much more intense campaign to achieve his will. The constitutional draft process is crucial in that context, as much as keeping the MHP close to him, for an amendment that would secure his aspiration.

But the era unfolding will not be merely about powerful, charismatic, popular Erdoğan. There will be several figures whose choices will shape it.

A statesman of smooth sophistication and wide approval abroad, it will be the current president, Abdullah Gül, to start with. Then count in two more key personalities: Bülent Arınç, an elderly founding father, also profoundly respected in “deep Anatolia” for his courage, honesty and rhetoric. Numan Kurtulmuş, a newcomer, a rising star, parachuted onto the AKP ground after disbanding the Voice of the People Party (HAS Party) he had founded, is all of a sudden in the big game.

To these gentlemen, we should also add Ali Babacan, the “backbone” of the AKP’s economic success story as minister of finance, and Devlet Bahçeli, the unchangeable leader of the current “de facto” ally on the nationalist right, the MHP.

Surely, the defining moment will be what Erdoğan and Gül, two brothers in arms, now in visible disagreement on how politics are managed in major matters, agree (or not) upon. Those in Ankara who predict a “soft deal” between them are in the majority, but it should not at all be taken for granted. Would Gül, who was publicly disappointed about the steps that were taken to block his second-term election (a move that bounced back from the Constitutional Court) by the party he co-founded, prefer to remain where he is? Nobody can easily respond “no” to this.

In the future we will have more time to elaborate on new scenarios in and around the AKP, now an immensely powerful political machine, but let us suffice with lining up what the critical actors I mentioned intend and where they stand.

Gül, still too young to quit politics, will definitely raise the stakes of the game. He will demand an active, leading executive role in the new era. It would be unthinkable to consider him replicating a Putin-Medvedev scenario. Gül is too keen and self-conscious of the international image and reputation he has built. Can he choose to quit? He may be forced to, but this will have sharp consequences in politics -- in general and for the AKP itself.

Kurtulmuş, with a cool image, looks more fit in the Russian type of scenario (and perhaps Erdoğan has him as the most fit for the role), but this presumption should then be considered together with where Arınç would stand. The latter is said to be “rather dismayed” about the sudden landing of Kurtulmuş, and for a person like Arınç who has been very eager to keep the party together, it does not seem surprising. So, he will be “on the watch,” judging Erdoğan’s moves and playing his influential cards in a timely manner. Here, we are talking about a very sensitive player -- sensitive to where Turkey is heading and to fair play in power politics.

My mentioning of Babacan as important may look like a surprise, but it should not -- simply because Turkey has now entered a three-year-period of elections. This means the well-known formula -- a populist election economy for winning votes. Considering he is already under fire for his rational, disciplinary approach and his well-entrenched position with equal distance from Erdoğan and Gül, whatever would come to happen with Babacan will definitely matter.

And Bahçeli: Whether or not Erdoğan pushes through a presidential system, he will anyhow need the MHP vote in the elections. Bahçeli will define the spirit of the constitution (if there ever will be one) and the political fate of Erdoğan to a great deal. It is telling enough.

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