Erdogan’s Pivot to Erbakan’s Faction: Motivations, Challenges and Prospects

Ahmed Nadhif | 15 Mar 2021

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey is going through a state of disintegration in its traditional social base since 2013 in the wake of disagreement with the Gülen movement led by Fethullah Gülen. Huge segments of the Turkish conservative class started to shun AKP. In the summer of 2016, the botched coup attempt deepened this rift after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan forged an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) as part of the People's Alliance. This has led to the rise of the nationalist tendencies inside AKP and policies of the Turkish regime while traditional leaders started to leave the party.

However, AKP defeat in local elections in June 2019 has clearly shown this base disintegration, especially when Erdogan’s ruling party lost Istanbul mayoral elections in front of its historical rival the Republican People's Party (CHP) after 25 years of controlling this position. Since then, Erdogan has been looking for a new formula to run in the upcoming elections, whether by cementing his alliance with the nationalists or by looking for new allies. The Turkish president is also trying to restore his historical conservative base. To this end, he has been trying for some time to woo his old mentor, Necmettin Erbakan’s movement.

This paper analyzes Erdogan’s tendency for rapprochement with Erbakan’s movement by clarifying its indicators, motives, and challenges facing AKP leadership to conclude this alliance, and its future consequences.

Historical background of AKP’s social base formation

In Feb. 1997, Erbakan was pressured by Turkey’s National Security Council to step down as prime minister. Later on, the Constitutional Court of Turkey banned his Welfare “Refah” Party from politics for violating the secular constitution of the state. Despite banning Erbakan from politics for 5 years, his disciples, including Erdogan reestablished the party under the name Virtue Party in Dec. 1998. However, this party has faced the same destiny after it was banned by Turkey’s judiciary for the same charges. Over this long path of Turkey’s Islamist movement activity since the 1960s until the end of the Virtue Party, the social base of this movement was essentially composed of urban and rural conservative segments in Istanbul and the Anatolia, junior students, merchants, farmers and a strong youth segment inside Islamic schools, especially a large segment of sympathizers from order Sufism (Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Bektashi, Mevlevi, and Khalwati) and institutional Sufism (the Nursi group of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi and the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gülen).

This vicious circle of establishment and banning forced a huge segment of youth with the Erbakan movement to look for a new discourse to ensure their political presence. The strong and direct Islamist discourse used by Erbakan in dealing with the deep and firm secular institutions inside Turkey (the army, elites, political parties and the judiciary) was doomed by failure due to power imbalance between the two sides, especially in face of the military establishment. Erbakan, however, clung to his methodology and in 2002 established the Felicity Party similar to the old one. On the other hand, a group led by Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Abdullah Gul split to establish AKP and declared its commitment to the secular system founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This has coincided with the rise of a new American narrative in the wake of Sep. 11, 2001 attacks led by think tanks and elites that encouraged Islamist movements – described as moderate – as more capable of defeating violent Jihadist movements.[1]

Although it has Islamic roots, the new party tried to present itself as pro pluralism, pro-European and friendly to business people. During this time, AKP’s social base became more diverse; new segments of liberal intellectuals, middle class ambitious business people in face of the traditional Turkish bourgeoise with links to authorities. The discourse of the new party – soft and moderate in its conservatism – has succeeded in confronting the deep institutions and establishing a strong social base around it that brought it to office in less than 1 year of its establishment.

There was a turning point in 2013 on the trajectories of the development of pro-AKP social formations. We have seen disengagement between AKP and the Hizmet movement (Fethullah Gülen) in the wake of the corruption cases in which ministers and their families were involved. This has coincided with the Turkish regime’s tendency towards a new foreign policy, from the “zero problems” policy with neighbors which was the brainchild of Davutoğlu[2] to the “expansionist neo-Ottomanism” which has clearly expressed itself with the escalation of turmoil in the Middle East at the outset of Arab uprisings. Ankara saw in these uprisings an opportunity to expand its influence. This expansionist ambition has soon turned into some kind of a personal obsession by Erdogan in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Azerbaijan. In contrast, the domestic policy of the Turkish regime has evolved into more “totalitarianism, suppression and obsession with conspiracies.” This became evident since May 2013 with the outbreak of the Gezi Park[3] unrest in Istanbul which is the historical stronghold of the ruling party. The government suppressed these protests and described the protesters as a “group of traitors and conspirators”[4]. Erdogan became “paranoid” with a conviction that he is besieged by a “mysterious alliance of domestic and international enemies.”[5]

From 2013 to 2016, AKP lost huge segments of both the conservative and liberal social base, especially Sufis after disengagement with Hizmet movement (Fethullah Gülen) and liberals who started to sense an evaporation of the democratic promises. In contrast, a new class of elites and business people started to form around AKP, especially cronies and relatives of the political leadership to see a rise of influential political families, notably Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who served as Minister of Energy and Natural Resources and the Minister of Finance and Treasury.[6] AKP’s Conservative and liberal supporters agree that the party has not kept its promise on democracy and on monopoly of wealth which has prevailed in Turkey for decades and has slightly disintegrated in the early days of AKP in office. However, the new family elites around Erdogan have reproduced it in a new form.

The rising tide of nationalism

These policies became more acute and pronounced in the wake of the botched coup attempt in the summer of 2016. It has led to the rise of a presidential system that provided Erdogan and his party unprecedented powers. It has accelerated the politicization of the army and security forces after a huge purging process that led to the incarceration of 95, 000 people and 130, 000 were sacked or suspended. Hundreds of journalists and human rights activists were also detained. Loyalists were appointed in key positions in the state and AKP apparatus. The Kurdish political movement was faced with an iron fist and its leadership was arrested.

In light of these shifts, Erdogan and his party found themselves in an interim alliance with MHP as part of a political alliance called the People's Alliance. At this point, the Turkish regime has started to shift towards a nationalist tendency through escalation against Kurds. The regime, with the help of nationalists in parliament, confronted the rise of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and ensured political support for Ankara’s intervention in Syria against the Kurds. This has helped the regime to regain the confidence of the military establishment, which was shaken due to the Ergenekon trials[7] 2007-2012. In these trials, questionable evidence of an alleged coup was used to prosecute and imprison hundreds of top officers.[8] The regime also escalated against the EU in line with the position of its ally – MHP – which one of the fiercest opponents of Turkey’s joining the EU. AKP members in Europe enjoy strong ties with the Turkish far-right “Grey Wolves” movement as an expression of this new tendency for Edrogan’s domestic and foreign policies.[9]  

During this time, AKP and its leader Erdogan ramped up the nationalist-populist tendencies in their rhetoric. Talk about foreign conspiracies has become the only explanation for economic and political failures in the country.[10] All of these policies led to the disintegration of AKP’s traditional social base and its institutions after Erdogan’s historical comrades started to leave the party one by one.[11] In 2018, former President Abdullah Gul left the party. In 2019, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Ali Babacan left AKP and established a competitive political party. Also in 2019, former Foreign Minister Davutoğlu resigned after a series of criticism of Erdogan. In June 2019 AKP lost the mayoral position in Istanbul after more than 25 years of controlling it. Commenting on this event, AKP politician Mustafa Yeneroglu said in a significant message on Twitter: “we lost Istanbul because we have lost our moral superiority…We can regain this superiority through self-criticism, open a new page, and look forward to the future, dreams of the youth, rationality, rule of the law, rights and separation of powers.”[12]

Rapprochement between Erdogan and Erbakan movement: indicators, motives and challenges

AKP is facing a dead end two years before the next elections in Turkey due to the disintegration of its traditional social base and tendency by this base towards new political discourse by former AKP leaders such as Babacan and Davutoğlu. Therefore, Erdogan is obliged to go through a critical review of AKP’s course of action and look for solutions to this dilemma. To this end, Erdogan is making overtures to Erbakan’s movement inside Turkey which is represented officially by Felicity Party and “Millî Görüş” abroad.

1. Indicators

       This rapprochement with Erbakan faction is reflected in the following indicators:

  • February 27, 2020, marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Turkey’s former Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan (the spiritual father of the political Islam movement in contemporary Turkey) but without big publicity in the country. However, it is striking, that Turkey this year officially observed this occasion via pro-Erdogan and his ruling AKP media outlets. Erdogan, himself honored the memory of Erbakan on his official twitter account commending his “former mentor” despite the differences between the two men in the past.[13]
  • February 28, 2020, marked the 24th anniversary of the coup d’état that overthrew Erbakan’s coalition government in 1997 and led to the dissolution of his Islamic party. It is also noticeable that Turkey’s ruling elite focused this year on evoking the memories of that coup and paid tribute to Erbakan’s personal qualities.[14]
  • Erdogan also visited the grave of Erbakan in Istanbul as well as Oğuzhan Asiltürk, Chairman of the Felicity Party High Advisory Board in his house. Commenting on his visit to Asiltürk, Erdogan said that there is an old friendship between the two men and that he discussed with him the possibility of Felicity Party joining the People’s Alliance.[15]
  •  The judicial reforms announced by the country to improve human rights record and the rule of law. Moreover, some of Erdogan’s family members and close associates were removed from decision-making circles, notably his son-in-law, former finance Minister, Albayrak, in the wake of corruption charges filed by some key figures in Felicity Party against authorities.[16]
  • AKP nominated Osman Nuri Kabaktepe for the party’s Istanbul provincial chairmanship. The ruling party approved that appointment by acclamation as the nominee was one of Erbakan’s comrades and co-founder of the Felicity Party. He was also among the young leaders in “Millî Görüş” movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and worked with youth organizations of Virtue Party.[17]

2. Motives

The motives for this rapprochement can be summed up as follows: 

  • To recreate the momentum for the conservative base of AKP and the ruling People’s Alliance through social forces supporting the Felicity Party (Sufi movements, traditional Islamic elites…etc.)
  • To reestablish the idea of “moral superiority” in Turkey’s current political system through securing the support of the Felicity Party whose discourse represents pure Islamic morality as perceived by a large segment of conservative populations in Turkish cities, particularly in Istanbul that enjoys large electoral weight. The same goes for rural regions, particularly Anatolia, the historical stronghold of Turkey’s Islamic movement.
  • To prevent the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) founded by Ali Babacan and the Future Party formed by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu from benefiting from the solid base of Erbakan’s faction. This is particularly true since these two parties under the opposition “Nation’s Alliance” enjoy the support of Felicity Party. Moreover, they are partially supported by “Millî Görüş” followers abroad where the Turkish diaspora has a significant electoral weight for Erdogan.[18] 

3. Challenges

However, this rapprochement that Erdogan is betting on to restore the “old spirit” of the ruling party and enhance “People’s Alliance” faces a lot of challenges. The first main challenge is the opposition of a large segment of leaders in Felicity Party and “Millî Görüş” to this alliance. The head of Felicity Party, Temel Karamollaoğlu voiced his strong opposition to join AKP alliance. However, there is a minority of leaders inside the party led by Oğuzhan Asiltürk, Chairman of the Felicity Party High Advisory Board, that considers this issue as debatable. As for “Millî Görüş”, which serves as one of the support bases for Erdogan abroad, the head of the movement, Kemal Erjwan, has recently criticized the ruling regime on Twitter.[19] He referred to the violation of human rights in Turkey which was interpreted as a sign of the declining support of Turkish Islamic diaspora for Erdogan. That tendency was also evident when Germany-based largest Turkish diaspora organization, Union of International Democrats (UID) has elected a new chairman and board on January 24th after former head and longtime member Bülent Bilgi surprisingly decided to step aside. Koksal Kus was elected as new chairman even though he has been close to far-right “Grey Wolves” movement.[20] This is considered to be another sign that nationalism is on the rise at AKP.  

The second challenge is the success of the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) led by Ali Babacan in winning the support of important segment of Erbakan’s social base, particularly the independent circles benefiting from his alliance with Felicity Party under the “Nation’s Alliance” that includes opposition parties. Babacan’s party even succeeded in making lawmaker Mustafa Yeneroglu join DEVA after resignation from AKP. Yeneroglu is considered to be one of the historical leaders of “Millî Görüş”, the extension of Erbakan’s movement in Europe, and a very influential political figure among the Turkish diaspora in Europe.[21]

Chances of success of rapprochement and potential consequences

Nothing seems impossible two years before Turkey’s next general elections (2023), as the political landscape can witness radical shifts with the emergence of new alliances, particularly with Erdogan’s occasional unexplained and sudden moves. Therefore, the chances for Erdogan to attract Erbakan’s faction remain strong, particularly with the presence of an important wing inside Felicity Party that seeks to negotiate with him on the nature, goals and gains of the proposed alliance, not to mention that there are many “Millî Görüş” leaderships abroad who are still loyal to Erdogan and AKP given the generous aid they provide to the Turkish diaspora in Europe.[22] And yet, given the  influence and history of Erdogan’s two political opponents- Ali Babacan and  Davutoğlu - his chances to attract the social bases of Felicity Party and “Millî Görüş” movement seem to be slim. This is quite true because the two entities share the same conservative political narrative, not to mention that Felicity Party’s aversion to Erdogan’s ally, the nationalist movement, due to deep historical backgrounds.

Turkish ruling regime’s attempt to seek rapprochement with Erbakan’s faction and its social bases will have potential repercussions on Turkey’s internal political landscape, notably:

  • A deep split may take place within Felicity Party and “Millî Görüş” movement[23] which can lead to a dispersal in their social bases. We may witness the emergence of a pro-Erdogan and the People’s Alliance wing against those who support Ali Babacan and Davutoğlu under the opposition Nation’s Alliance.
  • The weakness that the People’s Alliance may suffer from should Erdogan succeed in attracting Erbakan’s faction given its embrace of Islamic discourse and its historical positions on the secular system in the country which may lead to further disputes with the nationalist movement.
  • Any real convergence between Erdogan and Erbakan’s faction will certainly undermine the relationship between the President and the leadership of the military establishment given the historical dispute between the army and Erbakan’s faction that started with 1997 coup d’état. Additionally, the leadership of Felicity Party advocates a peaceful approach towards the Kurds in the country unlike the current confrontational policy pursued by Erdogan against Kurdish political organizations while the army and the nationalist movement are supportive of the President’s current policy.

Conclusions

  • Cracks have begun to appear in the traditional social bases of Turkey’s ruling party (AKP) since 2013 in the wake of the disengagement between the party and the Gülen movement. As such, large segments of Turkey’s conservative population have started to shift away from AKP since then. That kind of division has been even deepened upon the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016 and with Erdogan’s attempt to enhance his alliance with the nationalistic movement under the People’s Alliance. This has virtually led to the rise of nationalism inside AKP and Turkish regime’s policies and withdrawal of some historical leaderships from the ruling party.
  • In its attempt to break the deadlock, Erdogan’s AKP is trying to converge with Felicity Party, the official representative of Erbakan’s faction inside Turkey. Through this rapprochement, the Turkish President is seeking to recreate the momentum for the conservative base of his alliance by receiving the support of Felicity Party that represents pure Islamic morality. He also aims to prevent the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) founded by Ali Babacan and the Future Party formed by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu from taking advantage of the solid base of Erbakan’s faction in Turkey’s next general elections.
  • However, this rapprochement that Erdogan is betting on to restore the “old spirit” of the ruling party and enhance “People’s Alliance” faces a lot of challenges, notably the opposition of a large segment of leaders in Felicity Party and “Millî Görüş” to this alliance. Moreover, the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) led by Ali Babacan has succeeded in winning the support of important elements in Erbakan’s social base, particularly the independent circles.
  • Chances for Erdogan to win over Erbakan’s faction remain strong, particularly with the presence of an important wing inside Felicity Party that seeks to negotiate with him on the nature, goals and gains of the proposed alliance, not to mention that there are many “Millî Görüş” leaderships abroad who are still loyal to Erdogan and AKP given the generous aid the party gives to the Turkish diaspora networks in Europe.
  • Turkish ruling regime’s attempt to seek rapprochement with Erbakan’s faction and its social bases will have potential repercussions on Turkey’s internal political landscape, notably a potential deep split within Felicity Party and “Millî Görüş” movement which can lead to a dispersal in their social bases; the weakness that the People’s Alliance may suffer from should Erdogan succeed in attracting Erbakan’s faction; not to mention that any real convergence between Erdogan and Erbakan’s faction will certainly undermine the relationship between the President and the leadership of the military establishment given the historical dispute between the army and Erbakan’s faction.

Endnotes

[1] Cheryl Benard, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies, RAND Corporation 2003, https://bit.ly/3qgaVWw

[2] AHMET DAVUTOGLU, Turkey’s Zero-Problems Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, May 20, 2010. https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/05/20/turkeys-zero-problems-foreign-policy/

[3] Gezi park protests, Amnesty International, 2013. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/12000/eur440222013en.pdf

[4] Turkish prime minister vows to increase police force, Hurriyet Daily News, June 18 2013. https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-prime-minister-vows-to-increase-police-force-49006

[5] Erdogan’s family drama and the future of Turkey, Financial Times, 18 Nov. 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/5ba8d28a-2550-446a-8cd5-92e33caff637

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ariane Bonzon, L'Affaire Ergenekon, Slate, 31 Mars 2011. http://www.slate.fr/story/35835/affaire-ergenekon

[8] Soner Cagaptay, Erdogan's Nationalist Path to a Full Presidential System, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 24, 2016. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/erdogans-nationalist-path-full-presidential-system

[10] Jamie Dettmer, Turkey's Erdogan Ramps Up Nationalist Rhetoric, Voice of America, May 31, 2018. https://www.voanews.com/europe/turkeys-erdogan-ramps-nationalist-rhetoric

[11] “Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his comrades turned into rivals,” BBC Arabic, Sep. 5, 2109. https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-49550718

[12] https://twitter.com/myeneroglu?lang=fr

[13] Erdogan pays tribute to Erbakan in the 10th anniversary of his death, Anadolu Agency, 27 February 2021. https://bit.ly/3edK5f8  

[14] “Erdogan: the coup was a crime against humanity”, Anadolu Agency, 28 February 2021. https://bit.ly/3qkqZX5

[15] "Turkey…Signs of new parties joining the “People’s Alliance” under AKP leadership, Turk Press, 9 January 2021. https://www.turkpress.co/node/76926

[16] "Head of the Felicity Party: Corruption has become the norm in the country”, Turkey Now, 19 January,2020. https://bit.ly/3c9kH7I

[17] “No early elections.” AKP nominates a new face to regain Istanbul”, alestiklal Newspaper, Turkey, 26 February 2021. https://www.alestiklal.net/ar/print/7608/C8 

[18] During the battle of constitutional amendments according to which Erdogan became President, Turks in France voted in favor of constitutional amendments by %63.2, as did %71.2 of Turks in the Netherlands, while major Turkish cities- Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir- refused these amendments.

[19] “How does the Felicity Party look at Erdogan’s coalition moves”, Turkey Now, 17 January, 2021. https://www.turkeyalaan.net/2021/01/17/%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%BA%D8%A7%D9%86-4/

[20]Second Largest Turkish Diaspora Organization Indicates Abandoning Erdogan for his Arch-Rival, Diaspora Daily, January 14, 2021. https://bit.ly/3rpcv9J

[21] Erdogan Entrusts His European Lobby to a German-Turkish Nationalist, Diaspora Daily, January 28, 2021. https://bit.ly/38cpELJ

[22] Ahmad Nadeef," Turkey’s infiltration of the European Union: manifestations, objectives, and counter policies”, Emirates Policy Center, 14 January 2021. https://epc.ae/ar/topic/turkeys-infiltration-of-the-eu-manifestations-objectives-and-counter-policies  

[23] "Does Erdogan seek to divide the Felicity Party”, Turkey’s daily, Zaman, 13 January 2021. https://bit.ly/3rBLC2L

 

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