Turkey's ruling AKP holds congress in shadow of Erdogan

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 11, 2015 6:36 PM

By Orhan Coskun and Ercan Gurses

ANKARA (Reuters) - As Turkey's ruling AK Party convened its congress in the capital Ankara on Saturday, the longest shadow was cast by a politician who, officially at least, is no longer even a member: President Tayyip Erdogan.

The most popular and divisive Turkish politician in recent memory faces budding discontent from inside the movement he founded, officials say, as his drive to secure an absolute majority for the AKP has pushed it toward a snap election where such a result is uncertain.

The friction between Erdogan and the man who replaced him as head of the AKP, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, was expected to play out on Saturday as both men try to stack the party's committees with their own loyalists.

There had been some speculation Erdogan would push former transport minister Binali Yildirim to challenge Davutoglu for the chairmanship of the center-right, Islamist-rooted AKP at the congress. But party spokesman Besir Atalay confirmed on Friday that Davutoglu would stand for the leadership unopposed.

"He seems to have scared Davutoglu into toeing his line by raising the specter of his man Binali Yildirim contesting the leadership," said Halil Karaveli, managing editor of The Turkey Analyst, a policy journal.

Party officials say that, among numerous bones of contention within the ranks, there is much argument over the fact that Davutoglu considered forming a coalition after the AKP lost its absolute majority at an election in June.

After the AKP failed to find a junior coalition partner, Davutoglu was forced to form a temporary cabinet.

Erdogan's hope is that the AKP can win enough votes to eventually change the constitution and create a more powerful presidency, though this looks highly unlikely in the short term.

The political uncertainty is worrying investors in Turkey's more than $800 billion economy. They have been unnerved as Ankara battles Kurdish militants at home and Islamic State fighters on its borders, and have sent the lira currency to a series of record lows.

ENORMOUS INFLUENCE

As the congress kicked off in a packed and sweltering arena in Ankara on Saturday, signs of Erdogan's popularity were everywhere, with some delegates wearing headbands and red scarves emblazoned with his image.

A video showed him addressing huge crowds at rallies, meeting with world leaders such as Russia's Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and inspecting building sites in an orange hard hat.

Arriving outside the stadium, Davutoglu greeted crowds and said the AKP was ready to take action for a "new democracy" at the Nov. 1 polls.

As president, Erdogan is supposed to be above party politics. But party officials say he still exerts enormous influence over the AKP and will make this felt as members of the party's powerful committees are chosen.

"Some of Erdogan's more drastic authoritarian moves are likely the result of political survival instincts," said Erik Meyersson, an assistant professor at the Stockholm School of Economics.

"In practice, this would mean retaining control over leadership of the party - somewhat peculiar given that he's not the official head of the party any more - and appointing lieutenants personally loyal to himself."

One senior AKP official said this would annoy some factions, but that there was little they could do about it.

"Nobody can risk a massive breakup, and everyone is aware of this sensitivity," the official said.

Suleyman Ozeren of the Global Strategic Research Centre agreed that feathers would be ruffled, "but it must also be accepted that the one who controls the party is President Erdogan".

(Additional reporting by David Dolan and Ayla Jean Yackley; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Larry King)