Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a vote of confidence in the March 30 local elections that could rapidly lead to his replacement. His problems do not solely rest with the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) which has strong candidates challenging the AKP incumbents in the mayoral races in Ankara and Istanbul. His biggest challenge is coming from rival factions within the ruling party. One faction, led by President Abdullah Gul, has carved out a moderate and anti-corruption profile in the face of a growing series of corruption scandals engulfing Erdogan and his closest factional allies in the AKP. The other faction is more of a leaderless grouping of AKP local leaders who are deeply frustrated by the pattern of recent scandals surrounding Erdogan.
In response to the internal AKP revolt and the collapsing public support for Erdogan, the Prime Minister has resorted to a series of recent desperate measures that could backfire in the elections and the aftermath.
On March 23, while Erdogan was addressing a party campaign rally, Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian plane that crossed into Turkish air space. The Syrian plane crashed inside Syrian territory and the pilot safely ejected. Turkish sources have told MEB that they believe that the incident was almost solely a domestic political ploy by Erdogan to boost nationalist fervor for the elections. It was not viewed as an indication of a planned Turkish escalation of a border war with Syria.
But two days later, Turkish media received a leaked audio of a meeting between four top Erdogan aides, plotting a war with Syria to boost AKP electoral support. The meeting between Foreign Minister Davutoglu, Intelligence Chief Fidan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army Guler and Deputy Foreign Minister Sinirlioglu discussed the prospect of a direct Turkish invasion of northern Syria to defend the sacred Tomb of Suleiman Shah against Al Qaeda-linked terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Erdogan aides projected that international support for military options against Al Qaeda would be overwhelming, even though the incursion into Syrian territory would constitute an act of war against Syria. The lone dissenting voice in the group was MIT boss Fidan, who argued that there could be significant popular backlash if Al Qaeda retaliated with increased terrorist operations on Turkish soil. There have been two recent Al Qaeda attacks in Turkey, in which a number of Turkish police were killed.
Erdogan responded to the leaking of the audio of the meeting by shutting down Twitter and several other social media. Foreign Minister Davutoglu denounced the leak as a “cyber attack” against Turkey.
These recent antics, combined with the series of corruption scandals and the public fight between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, the leader of a large Islamist populist movement in the country, have created an internal backlash in the AKP against Erdogan and his inner circle. If the AKP loses both the mayoral elections in Ankara and Istanbul, MEB source report that Erdogan will come under tremendous pressure from within the party to resign and allow a more popular and less contaminated replacement. The obvious candidate is President Gul.