Spymaster U-Turn Shows Erdogan’s Sway in Turkey’s Ruling Party

Last summer, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended a decade as prime minister of Turkey to assume the non-political post of president, many were skeptical. Would the dominant figure in Turkish public life, who had pledged to sever his party ties, really stay out of politics?

Last week, Turks got an answer when Erdogan proved he was still setting the agenda within the ruling AK Party. Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s intelligence chief who had tried to step down and run for parliament in the party, returned to his post after pressure from the president.

“Even after becoming president, Erdogan is still controlling all the vessels and cells of the AK Party,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by phone on Tuesday. “His political objectives and his fingerprints will be all over the party’s make up after the elections.”

In theory, Erdogan handed control of the party to Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister. The decision by Fidan, an Erdogan appointee, to step down and run for parliament this June was seen as a Davutoglu victory, analysts said. Two days before Fidan resigned, the prime minister said he could also serve his country in politics.

“He’s brave, courageous and never backtracks a step he takes,” Davutoglu was quoted as saying by state-run Anadolu news agency on Feb. 5.

Peace Agreement

MIT officials couldn’t be reached for comment. The agency reports to the prime minister, whose office declined comment. Erdogan’s office also declined to comment.

Erdogan had reason to keep Fidan at his post, according to analysts including Jonathan Friedman, a Turkey analyst at global risk consultancy Stroz Friedberg.

One of the president’s top goals is to conclude a peace agreement with the PKK, a Kurdish rebel group in Turkey’s southeast. As prime minister in 2012, Erdogan called Fidan a “keeper of his secrets” for his role in talks with the PKK.

After years of talks, the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan called on militants last month to approve laying down arms. Erdogan now needs Fidan to conclude the peace agreement with Kurds to end the fighting, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984, Friedman said.

‘Take Me’

Fidan, a former non-commissioned military officer in the army, was little known when Erdogan named him the head of Turkey’s MIT spy agency in 2010. After a prosecutor wanted to summon Fidan for his role in talks with the PKK, Erdogan told the attorneys to “take me instead of him” and pushed through legislation intended to shield the intelligence chief and other spies from prosecution.

When Fidan decided not to seek his mentor’s consent before attempting an entry into politics, Erdogan struck back.

“Of course I am offended,” the president told Akif Beki, his former spokesman and currently a columnist at Hurriyet newspaper. “I am the one who brought him to that position. If there is no permission granted, he should have stayed there.”

Fidan’s short-lived political career is a sign of a brewing struggle between Erdogan and Davutoglu, Ozcan said. Davutoglu has been trying to build a power base. The president expected his successor to follow his instructions.

“It is understood that Fidan and Davutoglu made a decision without proper consultation with the president,” Ozcan said. “Erdogan eventually got what he wanted.”

Presidential Power

Erdogan wants to rewrite the constitution to increase presidential power. That requires 367 votes for ratification in the parliament or 330 votes to bring it to a popular referendum. AK has 312 seats in the parliament so Erdogan needs to control the list and increase the number.

Turning Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one also means transferring some of the powers currently held by AK Party lawmakers to a smaller group of people, Friedman said, something many lawmakers will not like. So Erdogan needs to make sure his loyalists are running.

“Davutoglu is asked to make his own coffin,” he said. “Erdogan hasn’t given people any real reason to buy into his idea of introducing a presidential system. It’s unpopular among the AK Party itself.”

That’s why Erdogan wants control over the list of candidates, said Ozer Sencar, head of the Ankara-based polling company MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research. Erdogan proved his power by forcing Fidan out of politics even though the legal authority to finalize the list lies with Davutoglu, he said.

‘Self Destruction’

“No premier would work to approve the kind of presidential system that Erdogan envisages,” Sencar said. “This would mean self-destruction for the prime minister.”

Erdogan on Sunday said talk of any rift between him and the prime minister was untrue.

“Their problem is, ’I wonder if we can get them to go after one another?’” They shouldn’t bother,’’ he said. “You won’t be able to do that, you won’t succeed. These are empty, futile things.”

Although that conflict may become more stark after the elections, Erdogan will “continue to dominate the party and key government ministries in the near term,” Mehmet Muderrisoglu, a Turkey analyst at Eurasia Group in London, said in an e-mailed report Tuesday.

“Before moving to the presidency, Erdogan put in place a system that allows him the maximum level of control over the AK Party,” Ozcan said. “He set up a system that leaves little to be decided by Davutoglu.”