By Mustafa Akyol
When Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç, openly criticized Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last Friday, he did something very notable because, first of all, criticism of Erdoğan is not something you can normally see within the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Second, Arınç’s take underlined not only a personal dispute but a growing rift among Turkey’s religious conservatives.
First, let me summarize what happened. Earlier last week, news spread that Erdoğan, in an all-AKP meeting, spoke about his will to ban “student houses where girls and boys live together.” Arınç, as government spokesman, was asked about this by the media, and he responded by saying that such a separation was only for state dormitories “but not private houses.” However, Erdoğan put Arınç in a very difficult position the next day, by saying to the press, “no, no, I mean private houses, too.”
This unexpected, but not surprising, take by Erdoğan initiated a heated national debate. But, apparently, it also upset Arınç, who both found “intrusion in private houses” wrong (he said this would be against EU norms) and who also got offended by Erdoğan’s reckless one-man-show.
A similar tension between the two men had taken place during the Gezi Park protests as well, as Arınç had taken a conciliatory attitude toward the protestors, whereas Erdoğan had proved defiant and uncompromising.
In short, Arınç appears to be taking a more “moderate line” at a time when Erdoğan is voicing an increasingly tough stance. Last week’s outburst by Arınç was most probably a cumulative reaction to this gap between him and Erdoğan, as well as the latter’s concentration of power.
At this point, it is worth recalling that Erdoğan and Arınç, along with Abdullah Gül, who is now president, are the very trio who founded the AKP together in 2001. Then, Erdoğan was almost like the primus inter pares, whereas Gül and Arınç also had great authority in the party. Yet as time went by, and as Gül left the party for the presidency in 2007, Erdoğan consolidated his power.
Erdoğan, certainly has a huge fan base, which sees him almost as a faultless “master.” This base is also very Islamist in its outlook, in the line of the “National View” ideology that the AKP had officially abandoned during its founding but apparently kept alive.
But not all conservatives fancy this tough stance and some of them favor a more center-right view, in the line of, say, former Prime Minister Turgut Özal. They, in other words, are proud of their moral conservatism but are not willing to impose it on others. They also still care about the relations with the West and care about European Union standards. Both Gül and Arınç seem to be taking this center-right position rather than the Islamist strain in the ruling party.
It must be noted that the influential Fethullah Gülen movement, which has always remained distant frmo Islamism and opted for the center-right, is also in the picture, by criticizing Erdoğan and taking a more sympathetic attitude toward Gül and Arınç.
What will come out from this rift is hard to guess. It is just obvious now that Islamism and center-right conservatism, which had been united under the AKP in the past decade, are growing increasingly distinct, and it might be difficult to keep them in the same box.