What felt like a truly unexpected political earthquake sent interesting signals to the upper echelons of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), messages of its limitations.
When the vote in Parliament fell short of the critical constitutional threshold to pass an amendment paving the way for earlier local elections, many of us remembered the crucial vote in March 2003, which ended in disallowing American troops from entering Iraq from Turkish soil. The nature of the vote, its dose of drama and its consequences, is certainly incomparable. But once again we are reminded that nothing can be taken for granted in terms of pre-planning a political calendar, and that designing a domestic roadmap is not that easy, even under a single majority ruling party led by an extremely powerful personality such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The amendment, nevertheless receiving 360 affirmative votes, will go to a referendum. (It was about fixing the date of local elections to Oct. 27, 2013, pulling them back from November 2014. Since the elections for the presidency are also due to be held next year, possibly in August, the move is seen as a smart one to test the waters.)
But it is very likely that even as I write this column President Abdullah Gül is using his power of veto to send the amendment back to Parliament. His veto will most likely be based on doubts about the necessity of calling the nation to a referendum at a time of crisis in the neighborhood and at home. Besides, it will cost extra, at a time of worrisome economic developments.
If -- or, rather, when -- Gül sends it back to Parliament (willing to remain a political player for the future, not now), the AK Party will face two options: to make further minor changes in its content and appeal again for 367 votes (avoiding referendum) or to give the idea up altogether.
Given Erdoğan’s ambition, they will most likely opt for the former. But it may not be so easy this time. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) declared the amendment ready for a referendum (it steadily wants to test the AK Party’s strength by popular vote, to gain more momentum with which to work) but it would not change its vote from the negative this time either. So Erdoğan will not place high hopes on gaining any votes from that corner.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is also in a different mood. It has been taken for granted that aside from a few AK Party absentees, those who opted out of the parliamentary vote last week were from that party. This may have to do with the upcoming MHP congress, expected to be a scene of some dissent over the style of leader Devlet Bahçeli, as some within the party are discontent with his “far too close cooperation” with Erdoğan. Some surveys suggest that the MHP’s share of the vote has decreased, possibly due to Erdoğan’s shift towards hard-line policies in the Kurdish conflict. Bahçeli has kept MHP youth away from street violence, but he has opposition gathered around Koray Aydın, who may stand as a candidate against Bahçeli at the convention on Nov. 4.
Erdoğan has so far done the unusual thing and kept calm. But it is obvious he has been absorbing some lessons from the critical vote about the weaknesses in realpolitik, as he sails towards cementing a nationalist-conservative base for his dream of becoming president in 2014. The MHP has shown itself an unpredictable element, no matter how much he appeals to its sensibilities.
The new round will mean that even if Erdoğan manages to gain 367-plus votes this time, the “early” local elections could take place in the winter of 2013 at the earliest, which is not such a popular choice climate-wise among politicians -- including himself. But at the end of the day he will try for an earlier date, for an opportunity to judge for himself the lay of the land, so that he can engineer his campaign for the presidency.
Gül acts smartly. Maintaining distance and standing alone as a smooth player, he knows he has the tools to create some sort of system of checks and balances against kingmaking -- though endorsing Erdoğan -- or, if things get messy and deeply personal, to move in as a candidate, which he has the right to do according to the Constitutional Court. He has the upper hand in any bargaining situation to come in the near future.
Turkey is now riding a critical political carousel. If Gül moves in, and the MHP stumbles into second thoughts about the AK Party, Erdoğan may be forced to dramatically reconsider his next move. In that case he may call for an extraordinary party congress, change the bylaws and continue as prime minister, as powerful and “single” as before.