Expectations have been raised for weeks, even months, about Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) congress on March 24th. President and Party leader Tayyip Erdoğan would declare a manifest in the Congress. That would be a strategy for Turkey covering the year 2053; a roadmap for a new Turkey.
It was the talk in Ankara that the Congress of the nationalist Movement Party (MHP), AKP’s ally was scheduled for before March 24 (March 18) in order not to be overshadowed by the AKP Congress. Probably, even the senior figures of the Party like Deputy Chairman Mahir Ünal believed in this rhetoric as well. A few days before the Congress, Ünal gave interviews saying that the AKP “has been preparing for 19 years, and just starting”, as if confirming the thesis that they have a “hidden agenda”.
Scenarios were put forward in the political backstage about the Congress. For example, Erdoğan would leave the AKP Chair to his son-in-law Berat Albayrak who had left his Treasury and Finance Ministry position in a difficult turn.
According to another scenario, Erdoğan was considering entrusting the AKP to his hardliner Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.
None of those has happened.
The mountain gave birth to a mouse.
Erdoğan did not say anything new apart from his intention of “making the new constitution ready early 2022”, let alone the manifesto. Contrary to his routine, there were no challenges against “the West”. Just one or two mockings of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Imagine that the most exciting move within the AKP was making Binali Yıldırım, a former Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker, the second Acting Chairman of the Party alongside Numan Kurtulmuş. Certainly not a promotion.
No tremors in the Party
Perhaps there is no need to say that Erdoğan’s chairmanship was not (dared to be) challenged by any other candidate; he was re-elected unanimously.
Erdoğan’s goal remains to transform the AKP from a “party of a cause” to a “leader party” with the understanding that “the cause is now the leader”. Party Congress was opened with the song “I am in everything with you” instead of “We walked together on these roads”.
However, the grave tactical mistakes Erdoğan made due to his policy of alliances did not allow this, at least in this congress. He has to care for the balances with his ally Devlet Bahçeli of the MHP and the Islamist Saadet Party (SP) that he wants to ally with.
Heavy tactical mistakes
The tactical mistakes he made -only in March prevented him from taking all of the steps he planned for the March 24 Congress.
First of all, it was a mistake to announce certain judicial regulations on March 2 as a Human Rights Action Plan. Inside and outside, that endorsed the suspicions that Erdoğan’s words of reform will not be different from the previous ones.
Secondly, on March 12, he announced several financial measures, under the name of an Economy Reform. If Erdoğan had said something reminiscent of reform that day, probably the Central Bank would not raise interest rates again on March 18 to relieve the market. And perhaps Erdoğan would not fire the CB governor on March 20 only after 4.5 months; an act which hit the financial markets and the value of the Turkish lira once again.
HDP closure and violence against women
In the meantime, on March 17, on the eve of the MHP Congress, the Parliament has removed a deputy of the Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu from the Parliament. The same day a closure case was filed against the HDP on charges of Kurdish separatism, a move that further antagonized the political atmosphere in Turkey and out.
Finally, Erdoğan’s decision on March 20 to get out of the “Istanbul Convention”, the Council of Europe Convention against the violence on women, upon pressure from Islamic sects and orders, completed the political-psychological picture ahead of the March 24 Congress. Erdoğan was the leader who initiated the Convention back in 2011.
Those steps paved the way to the Congress being a low profile one.
His Congress speech
Please think of it this way: The only remark that made a headline for the reporters from this supposedly strategic event was Erdoğan’s call on citizens to “bring their foreign currency and gold that they keep in their houses to the banks.
It was not much different than a regular address to the AKP Group in the Parliament, and not one of the most influential ones.
But there were other messages between the lines.
For example, Erdoğan praised the alliance with the MHP leader Bahçeli at the very beginning of his speech. Bahçeli had done the same at MHP Congress giving his full support to Erdoğan’s Presidential candidacy for the 2023 elections.
A more nationalist and more Islamist but less liberal tone prevailed in Erdoğan’s Congress speech. A tone in line with the introversion in economy and politics.
Intervention to individual freedoms
Erdoğan’s words were really disturbing when he complained about young people who “are 30 years old, who still do not get married, who do not want to get married”. He also complained that mothers should raise the children instead of kindergartens or nannies, to keep the family ties strong.
Will the government decide who will get married or not at what age, and who will take care of their children? The government has to protect children under a certain age – our laws say 18 – from sexual assault, coercion, and violence, and that’s all. The government should not interfere with individual rights and freedoms should not interfere like this.
Taking a defensive position
Then there is the topic of parties not invited to Congress as observers. Like Bahçeli, Erdoğan sees the HDP as a showcase for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), so he did not even invite them.
However, the Gelecek Party and the DEVA Party, as splits from the AKP were not invited either. Does Erdoğan see his former comrades Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan as a political threat to his powerbase?
Whichever way you look at it, Erdoğan’s speech was much low-profile than expected, the changes in the party ranks were rather cosmetic, and he is rather hesitant about the much-speculated cabinet reshuffle.
Perhaps for the first time in his political past, Erdoğan seems to be in a defensive position, focused on the protection of his gains, not taking more.
Not an easy problem
On the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic started to hit again. On the other hand, increasing unemployment and cost of living, and financial fluctuations force both the people and the government. And foreign policy problems that are likely to affect the economy even worse. Particularly those with the USA and the EU.
But there are also the balances he has to take care of with his ally (MHP) and potential ally (SP) because of the necessity to get 50%+1 of the votes to get re-elected.
Erdoğan’s job is not easy.