The prime minister should use this election result to wrest control of Turkey’s most successful centre-right party
“Defeat in victory” is the best way to describe Sunday’s election result for the AK Party. The 40.89% it took is the second-worst parliamentary result of its short history and left it without a parliamentary majority. Even its worst ever result (34% in 2002) delivered a crushing majority – that is how ruthless Turkey’s election system can be.
But it is a victory nonetheless. The AK Party has a mandate from the Turkish people to have the first go at forming the next government – and party leader Ahmet Davutoğlu should seize it.
Is Davutoğlu Turkey’s prime minister or vice president?
Remember – on not one piece of paper anywhere does it say the AK Party belongs to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey’s president formally relinquished all ties to the party when he was elected to the politically neutral top job last year.
There is of course no point pretending that Mr Erdoğan kept that impartiality – he didn’t. He handpicked his successor as AK Party leader, made political advisors out of the most senior AK Party MPs who were leaving parliament at the election and, most prominently of all, held rallies around the country during the campaign – 46 of them, by our count.
Not an easy task
But that doesn’t mean Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should always be the de facto leader of Turkey’s main centre-right party. This election presents his successor with an opportunity to demonstrate that he is, in the words of Hurriyet Daily News editor Murat Yetkin, “Turkey’s prime minister and not its deputy president”. The only question is whether he will take it.
He has an extremely difficult job to do. On the one hand he leads an AK Party with large swathes of membership fiercely loyal to his predecessor. On the other, he has to strike a coalition deal with at least one of three opposition parties, all of which spent the campaign baying for that predecessor’s blood. And then there’s Mr Erdoğan himself – how to save him face and wrest control of his party at the same time?
Not a pushover
Some describe Mr Davutoğlu as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s subservient puppet, but that is unfair because he has done plenty to show that he isn’t. Remember his attempt to bring intelligence chief Hakan Fidan as a right-hand man? He was ultimately unsuccessful, yes, but he resisted a full month before relenting.
He showed he was his own man by resisting months of pressure to publicly support Mr Erdoğan’s plans for an executive presidency. And even when Mr Davutoğlu came out of the woods, he qualified his words by saying it was only one option for reform among many.
He has an extremely difficult job to do
And he’s also credited with maintaining party discipline by breaking up a very public, damaging brawl that broke out just a few months ago between his deputy prime minister and the mayor of the capital city.
Mr Davutoğlu’s challenge is to seize control of the AK Party and the loyalty of its supporters while simultaneously finding a dignified role for his predecessor. If he is truly a political craftsman, now is his moment to shine.