Ankara mayor bothers Erdoğan more than Trump
President Tayyip Erdoğan has been in serious rifts with Turkey’s Western allies the U.S. and the European Union for some time. “We don’t need you” rhetoric is heard increasingly frequently, despite the desperate efforts of Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi trying to persuade investors abroad that everything is OK in Turkey and problems are only temporary.
But Erdoğan has serious political problems within Turkey, particularly with two of the opposition parties: The social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) over foreign policy and economic issues, as well as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) over the long-running Kurdish problem.
He also has a number of serious problems within his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which perhaps bothers him more than anything else at the moment. The ongoing headache caused by Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, for example, is perhaps greater than that caused by his exchanges of words with U.S. President Donald Trump or German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Erdoğan knows that if the AK Parti loses blood in the March 2019 local elections, it would put in jeopardy the November 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, in which he and his party need 50 percent-plus-one vote to get re-elected. The president’s concerns have been growing since the April 2017 referendum, in which “No” votes against him prevailed in Ankara, Istanbul and many other big cities where municipalities are in AK Parti hands.
He believes that in order to be able to continue running the country, winning the municipalities is essentially. The chances of Kadir Topbaş - who recently resigned as Istanbul mayor after a smear campaign, ironically by the pro-government media – being reelected in 2019 were actually high. But among other disagreements Topbaş’s son-in-law was arrested over alleged links with U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, indicted in Turkey as the mastermind of the July 2016 coup attempt. Gökçek, the long-running mayor of Ankara, may not appear as strong as he did before, but with enough support from the AK Parti headquarters he would likely win again in 2019, as would other under-fire AK Parti mayors of cities like Bursa and Balıkesir.
But after the referendum and after his re-election as AK Parti chairman, Erdoğan now has additional criteria for party figures: If they do not have unconditional loyalty to the party chairman, their loyalty to the party and the country could be questioned too. Erdoğan is apparently in favor of continuing in politics with a new team that opened its eyes in politics with him - and which has no political history before him and the AK Parti.
A crunch meeting took place between Erdoğan and Gökçek around 10 days ago, amid media speculation that Gökçek’s resignation would soon be announced. However, the meeting did not bear any such immediate results, and Gökçek and others are effectively challenging the AK Parti management to fire them if they do not resign.
According to a report in pro-government daily Sabah on Oct 15, the AK Parti is currently looking for way to get rid of some of its most powerful mayors in a way that will cause the least minimum collateral damage.
The story shed some light on last week’s AK Parti Central Executive Board (MYK) meeting, chaired by Erdoğan. The party reportedly does not want those fragile mayors – as well as five others who have not been named - to either be removed from office and continue their party membership or resign from the party while keeping their mayor post as they were elected by the people.
Sabah reported that one formula discussed in the meeting was for the Interior Ministry to use its power and to remove these mayors from office. In that case a legal justification has to be shown, which could mean taking those AK Parti mayors to court either on corruption or other misuse charges.
But there are two main questions about this scenario that bother both Erdoğan and the AK Parti. Firstly, the mayors in question have their own local political history and vote base. Their removal from office, voluntarily or not, might lead to a loss of AK Parti votes, as well as unpredictable tremors within the party. But their continuing in office might also cause the same, as is referenced in Erdoğan’s recent “material fatigue” rhetoric.
Secondly, if there are serious allegations about those mayors - serious enough for the ministry to remove them from office and afterwards take them the court - will that mean that the mayors could actually be allowed to get away with it by simply resigning from office with no legal consequences? A similar question was asked in the press conference of CHP spokesman by Engin Altay.
This dilemma will force Erdoğan to take some crucial decisions in the near future. This is why his problems with Gökçek and other AK Parti mayors are currently bothering Erdoğan at least as much as the ongoing problems with Trump or Merkel, and it is also why these problems are actually interrelated.