What is Erdoğan trying to do?

What is Erdoğan trying to do?

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç’s recent criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even if shrouded in sugary diplomatic language, suggests turbulence ahead in Erdoğan’s relations with the government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

The topic of disagreement is the Kurdish peace process.

Having fathered this process and allowed it to mature to the point that it has, Erdoğan seems to be doing an about-face now with regards to some of its key aspects. For example, he opposes the independent monitoring group the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) wants and which the government appears to have accepted.

Erdoğan is also against the recent “Dolmabahce statement” which charts a road map for the Kurdish peace process. He insists, meanwhile, that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) –which may be outlawed but which the government is negotiating with – surrender its arms before anything can happen. The PKK obviously rejects this.

This is where Arınç stepped in, telling Erdoğan, in effect, not stir the cauldron. He has also been reminding Erdoğan that power remains vested in the government. “[Erdoğan’s] statements in which he says, ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I don’t approve of this or that,’ are emotional remarks. The responsibility is with the government and we can take his statements as personal views,” Arınç said March 21 in response to reporters’ questions.

He repeated the same sentiments a day later and told reporters, “We love our president, we know his power and are also aware of the services he will give, but please, do not forget that there is a government in this country.”

Davutoğlu remains highly deferential toward Erdoğan, but is clearly not prepared to go so far as to tell Arınç to shut up and leave the president – who is also the spiritual leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – alone.

It is inevitable, therefore, that many should be taking all of this as early indications of cracks emerging between Erdoğan and the government on a key issue that has the potential to make or, if not break, at least harm the AKP.

So why is Erdoğan throwing a spanner in the works of a venture he initiated? Are he and the government playing “good cop-bad cop,” as Murat Yetkin, our editor, suggested yesterday? Is he aiming at the Turkish nationalist and Kurdish conservative votes in the lead-up to the general elections which are only two-and-a-half months away?

It could be that he is trying to shepherd nationalist and conservative (including Kurdish conservative) support toward the AKP, which he hopes will achieve his ultimate ambition of becoming an executive president. But while Kurdish conservatives may be devout Muslims, they are not Turkish nationalists, and also have political demands to do with Kurdish rights.

This, therefore, is a gamble for Erdoğan because spoiling the current process risks undermining the AKP in Kurdish eyes across the board. Putting the AKP in a difficult situation, on the other hand, does the party little good prior to the elections. It also undermines his personal ambitions. Erdoğan has made it clear that he needs a strong AKP in parliament to realize his dreams of becoming an executive president.

This is why Erdoğan’s remarks have left many confused about his true intentions, and raised questions about whether he and the government are drifting apart. The crucial question, however, is whether his charisma and populism will win the day for Erdoğan in the end – also forcing the government back into line with him – regardless of the damage this may do to the Kurdish peace process.

Another possibility which can’t be discounted, however, is that his political ambitions, when combined with his harsh and uncompromising demeanor, have started to gnaw at his ability to remain cool-headed, and are forcing him to behave emotionally, as Arınç suggested.

If that is the case, many in the AKP will not be happy. Arınç has reminded us that there is no smoke without fire.