Read: Erdoğan is dividing Turkey against itself
These moves have brought already existing divisions and discontent within the AKP to a boiling point. For years, members of the party have privately complained about their frustrations and worries, but only when nobody could hear them. Shocked by recent events, some have now decided to speak out, offering a rare glimpse into a party that seems to have forgotten what it once stood for. Pushing for a cancellation of the election, these internal critics warn, would harm not just Turkish democracy, but the future of their own party as well.
“I am voicing criticism because others are not,” Kemal Öztürk, a former spokesman for Erdoğan who also served as the head of Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu from 2011 to 2014, told me. “I am a member of the AKP and want it to stay in power. But for that to happen, the party should constantly renew itself.”
Öztürk said structural problems have beset the AKP in recent years, since it embarked on a more nationalist course. This mounting nationalism reflected a global trend, he said, adding that it was in part a reaction to what were perceived as anti-Turkish sentiments in the West. As relations with Europe soured, many liberals left the party, and its commitment to meritocratic principles dwindled.
According to Galip Dalay, a visiting scholar at Oxford University, experienced politicians have, as a result, been replaced by Erdoğan’s personal confidants. “President Erdoğan values loyalty above everything else,” Dalay told me. “This has promoted a politics of favoritism and the rise of a class of careerists. These figures put their own interests above everything else and fuel personal rivalries within the party.”
Four sources with ties within the AKP, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, in particular expressed concerns about the growing influence of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, who was appointed finance minister last year. The election loss in Istanbul, these sources said, was at least partly related to a power struggle between Albayrak and the AKP’s candidate for mayor, Binali Yıldırım. According to one of the sources, a former political adviser still in touch with the party leadership, the two clashed as Albayrak demanded to maintain his influence in the future management of the city, which undermined Yıldırım’s already lackluster campaign.
Read: The decline and fall of Turkish democracy
The infighting is tied in large part to the enormous financial interests at stake. The budget of Istanbul’s Metropolitan Municipality amounted to 42.6 billion Turkish lira ($7.3 billion) last year, higher than that of most national ministries. A large proportion of this money goes to private companies to which the municipality outsources the provision of services or infrastructure projects. Controlling Istanbul therefore means presiding over a huge network of nepotistic relations that have increasingly become the oil that keeps the AKP’s power machine going. The Albayrak family has invested in these relations since the mid-1990s, when Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul and outsourced municipal projects to Albayrak Holding, a Turkish conglomerate that has taken on large construction and infrastructure projects ever since.