Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes supporters during a rally in Malatya, Turkey, Sept. 8, 2019.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes supporters during a rally in Malatya, Turkey, Sept. 8, 2019.

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is tightening his grip on his ruling party, expelling rivals amid weakening public support and challenges from former allies.

"Mischief makers," Erdogan called once-close allies at a recent rally of his supporters in the central provincial city of Sivas. "If we keep our brotherhood strong, then seeds of unrest can't grow," he said.

For the past couple of weeks, Erdogan has been touring his electoral strongholds in what is considered an attempt to thwart efforts to split his ruling AKP.

Last week, the AKP expelled former Prime Ministers Ahmet Davutoglu and Abdullah Basci, and two other close allies. Davutoglu is reportedly close to setting up a rival party.

FILE - Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses the media in Ankara, Aug. 15, 2011

"No room left for criticism" within the AKP, Basci said. "We will continue to talk about falsehoods. We will continue to stand with the nation and speak up."

Erdogan also faces a looming challenge from Ali Babacan, his former economy czar and deputy prime minister who is expected to launch a new party in the coming months. Babacan enjoys the backing of former President Abdullah Gul, a once-close ally of Erdogan.

Opposition grows

Criticism of Erdogan's authoritarian leadership is steadily mounting, compounded by growing economic malaise.

"I hear the AKP politicians are not happy with the situation, and they are starting to make connections with Ali Babacan," said Osman Can, a former AKP parliamentary deputy and a law professor at Istanbul's Marmara University, who is currently working with Babacan. "They see him as offering the only hope."

Can added, "We have big problems in Turkey and around Turkey. There is a big need for changing many, many things — constitutionally, legally — and the judiciary institutions. The new party should be part of the change."

Fatma Yavuz, a senior member of the Istanbul AKP until her resignation over Davutoglu's expulsion, said nearly 800,000 members had quit the party in the previous year. She says 400,000 had left in the past couple of months. The AKP denied the claim, saying only a quarter of a million members had left.

Erdogan suffered a crushing electoral blow in March, with his AKP losing control of most of Turkey's main cities, including Istanbul, in local polls. Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, had been his stronghold for nearly a quarter of a century.

"I think people are fed up with Erdogan's style, his polarizing of politics," said sociology professor Mesut Yegen of Istanbul's Sehir University. "Basically, people in Turkey realize Turkey should not be this polarized, and people realize this polarization is being used as a political tool."
 
Yegen cautions that challenges to Erdogan by former allies may be difficult, given their prominent role in the running of the country.

"There are criticisms that Gul, Babacan and Davutoglu should have acted before," Yegen said.

Can acknowledges that Babacan needs to answer such criticisms.  

FILE - Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

"Ali Babacan and ex-AKP politicians, also Abdullah Gul, should explain their silence to the people. It's very important because people need this. Psychologically, this is very important. The supporters also need this."

Observers also point out that any new party will need to widen its base beyond the ranks of dissident AKP members. Advisors close to Babacan say they are working to achieve a broad base movement, with ongoing talks with prominent figures of Turkish society.

Major reorganization

Mindful of the growing political threat, Erdogan is reportedly preparing for a significant Cabinet reshuffle. Newspaper columnist and presidential insider Abdulkadir Selvi said as many as five ministers could be dismissed in a bid for Erdogan to revamp his government.  

Erdogan has already carried out a significant shake-up of party personnel. Observers point out that such changes could prove counterproductive, given that it is widely seen that Erdogan bears responsibility for the predicament.

'He thinks all the bad things that are happening are because his deputies, his lieutenants, are not listening to him. And there is widespread disloyalty in the party," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.

"But at the end, he will end up losing," Yesilada said. "Most of the commentary form pro-AKP and dissident media is Ali Babacan and Davutoglu don't need to do anything. It's Erdogan's mistakes that will push supporters towards them, and I would not rule out early elections in 2020."