On the evening of Jan. 29, the now retired politician Bulent Arinc, the longtime deputy prime minister and parliament speaker of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), appeared on a CNNTurk talk show with remarks that sent shock waves through Turkish politics. He spoke on various issues, from the failed peace process with Kurdish separatists to the witch hunt on “the parallel state,” to the “trolls” who demonize people on behalf of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In all such issues, he never openly opposed Erdogan, let alone denounced him. Yet, still his remarks were perceived as a vehement protest against the president’s growing domination of the ruling AKP and Turkey’s overall political system.
One particular issue in which Arinc clearly differed from Erdogan dealt with the behind the scenes of the controversial “Dolmabahce Agreement” between the AKP government and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) declared in February 2015. This was a major step forward in the then-active “peace process” between Turkey and the armed and outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but Erdogan had strangely condemned this deal, suggesting he was not informed about it, inflicting a major blow on the peace process that he himself had initiated two years before. But now, on CNN Turk, Arinc said that Erdogan knew about the details of the meeting from the beginning.
This was more than enough to incite the wrath of the pro-Erdogan camp. On social media, the very “trolls” he criticized for smear campaigns began a new campaign to condemn him as a “traitor.” Hilal Kaplan, an ardent pro-Erdogan columnist for the staunchly pro-Erdogan daily Sabah, ridiculed him as “Lawrence of Manisa.” (This was a play on words on Lawrence of Arabia, as Arinc is from the province of Manisa.) The next day, pro-Erdogan newspapers such as Star, Aksam and Gunes came out with headlines condemning Arinc for “treason” and “speaking in the language of the terrorists.” Finally, Erdogan himself commented on Arinc, during his visit to Latin America, calling him only “this person,” and blaming him for “dishonesty.”
All this would be less of an affair had Arinc been a less prominent name in the AKP universe. Yet the AKP, in fact, is in part a creation of Arinc himself, as he was the one who spearheaded the “reformist movement” in the Islamist movement dominated by the late Necmettin Erbakan in the late 1990s. Ultimately Abdullah Gul became the leader of this movement, with Arinc’s critical support, and the two men, who were later joined by Erdogan, founded the AKP together in 2001. No wonder that for years people spoke of the “founding trio” of the AKP, which was Erdogan, Gul and Arinc. The charismatic Erdogan was only the first among equals.
Yet, over the years Erdogan’s domination over the AKP grew, and finally both Gul and Arinc found themselves, along with their supporters, pushed aside. That is why today both Gul and Arinc are retired, and pro-Erdogan trolls often advise them to shut up, stay aside and respect the power of “the Chief” — a term used lately for Erdogan by his admirers. (One Erdogan admirer openly declared their ideology as “Erdoganism.”)
Arinc’s break with Erdogan and the Erdoganists is a new rift in Turkish politics, but it has been brewing for a long time. During the witch hunts on Turkey’s secularist general and their allies — the “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” cases, which marked the 2009-12 era — Arinc was the only name in the AKP who criticized the oppression, such as the detention of journalists for months and even years. (Meanwhile, Erdogan was giving his full support to what he would later condemn as a conspiracy against the military.) During the Gezi Park protests of June 2013, Erdogan condemned the anti-government demonstrations as an international conspiracy and coup attempt, while both Arinc and Gul tried to establish dialogue with the protesters. After the break with the Gulen movement, Arinc opposed the “parallel state” like all other AKP members, but also opposed what turned out to be a witch hunt on the entire Gulen movement, including its schools, charities and kindergartens. All in all, one can say he proved to be more moderate and principled than many other people in his party.
More recently, right before his retirement on Nov. 1, Arinc had dared to criticize Erdogan’s domination on the AKP. “We were a party of ‘us,’” Arinc said in another breaking interview published in September. “But now we have turned into a party of ‘me.’”
Therefore, it may be fair to say that the current “rebellion” of Arinc against Erdogan, as some in Turkey see it, is only the latest drop of water overflowing the cup. Moreover, since the earth-shattering interview of Jan. 29, several prominent names in the AKP have declared their support for Arinc. They include former Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, who had spearheaded the legal reforms for European Union accession in the better era of the AKP, and former Minister of Education Huseyin Celik. While word has it that former President Abdullah Gul also is in agreement with Arinc, Gul so far has been silent.
In that sense, the “Arinc rebellion” seems to be the much-belated outburst of the much-speculated silent opposition within the AKP. But what is it likely to achieve?
At this stage, probably not much. Erdogan has accumulated such colossal power — an enchanted electorate, a media empire, innumerable devotees in every institution — that his opponents can’t achieve much other than getting themselves branded as “traitors.” But it is possible that this disturbance in the AKP may plant the seeds of future political change, especially if Erdogan’s next ambition — a new constitution with a super-presidency — accumulates more opposition within the ruling party, or if a new center-right political party emerges.
Finally, one may wonder what the government — the prime minister and his Cabinet — is thinking about all this controversy. Both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus have remained utterly silent on the Arinc affair. People speculate that perhaps their hearts are with Arinc, but that they cannot afford to jump into the “traitors” category overnight.