There are growing hints of tension between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from which he springs. The hints are random. For several months, there have been signs that after a decade as a hands-on prime minister, Erdogan has had a tough time transitioning to the traditionally symbolic role of president since his election to that post last summer. One party leader criticized Erdogan for criticizing a government decision. Several party meetings were surprisingly canceled. Old habits die hard, and Erdogan lashed out at the leadership of the government that, until recently, he ran.
These are, in many ways, normal politics of little concern. But right now, what happens in Turkey matters a great deal, and the possibility of a rift between the government and Turkey's charismatic leader has dominated Turkish headlines. Turkey is surrounded by conflict. To its south, the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars rage on. To its north, across the Black Sea, there is a war underway in Ukraine, an area where the Turks have multiple interests, including a Tatar community with Turkic roots in Crimea. To Turkey's northeast, there is continual low-level conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and anti-government demonstrations in Georgia. To the northwest, Greece is confronting the entire European Union over the resolution of its economic crisis.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an Erdogan ally with a hard act to follow, had once proclaimed a policy of 360 degrees without conflict. Instead Turkey is confronted with the opposite. Turkey has been very careful not to be drawn into these conflicts. However, as the conflicts — particularly the military ones in the south — intensify, and Turkey's borders are potentially affected, Turkey's ability to stay out of the fighting could falter.
Erdogan is an extraordinary figure in modern Turkish history. His personality has dominated Turkey for the past decade, as has his strategy. Erdogan and the AKP recognized that while Turkey was secularist, it was also a Muslim country, and with the rise of Islamic radicalism, integrating Turkey's religious Muslims with the country's secularists was essential. Erdogan did this the only way it could have been done: imperfectly. Balancing between the two was difficult, and the secularists accused him of being a radical Islamist himself. At the same time this was going on, Erdogan presided over one of the most dramatic growth spurts of the era. Under Erdogan, Turkey moved from being a minor power to becoming a regional player of great potential significance.
Erdogan has been the balancer. He has balanced between secular and religious, between being a regional power and plunging into regional conflict, between the poverty of eastern Turkey and the wealth of Istanbul. His method of balancing is interesting: It was a combination of very deliberate public bombast to draw attention to himself and increase his options, and extremely complex political maneuvers designed to build coalitions and undermine opponents. He hid his Machiavellianism beneath a veneer of the self-important potentate. It worked.
But nothing works forever. The AKP has become less popular as the economy has weakened. And Erdogan's long presence on stage has worn out at least some of his welcome. The problem is — and this is inevitably the case — there is no one with the presence to replace him, and no one with his self-created authority to deal with the crises surrounding Turkey and within Turkey. This is the largely unspoken reality that prompted a spate of speculation about the party's future over a few comments that in other circumstances might pass without heed.
Erdogan arranged to become president, leaving behind the prime ministry. This is one of his problems. He is head of state but not head of government. Davutoglu, the former foreign minister, is head of government, and is a very low-key figure. That is as Erdogan wanted it. But one part of this small, emerging political crisis is that the president does not govern directly. The prime minister does. But they are close allies, with Davutoglu serving in the junior role. Therefore Erdogan, as he is wont, regards himself as effective head of government. There are those in the AKP who oppose this in and of itself, and also because they see disaster in coming elections.
This matters more in Turkey than it would in other countries because in the end, there is no way that Turkey will avoid involvement in the area to its south. How it enters and what it does matters not only to Syrians and Iraqis but also to Iranians and Saudis and Americans. Erdogan, at his height, was surefooted enough to manage this without disaster. A weakened Erdogan, or one of his potential successors, may lack the gravitas to maintain the balancing act even as Turkey grows into its regional role. Turkey is emerging as a great power, as we have argued. Erdogan has been instrumental in guiding this growth. Now the question is whether an Erdogan under pressure, or a challenger in the prime ministry he left behind, will be able to maintain the balancing act — and what this will mean 360 degrees around Turkey, and especially to the south.
Most political challenges don't matter to the world. This one does.