ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s ruling AK Party has taken authority to appoint provincial party officials away from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in a move seen reducing his power over grass roots supporters and consolidating the influence of President Tayyip Erdogan.
The step, decided on Friday at a meeting of the AKP’s top executive committee, is one of the clearest signs yet of tensions between Erdogan, who wants an executive presidency in Turkey, and Davutoglu, who would be sidelined if the country’s parliamentary system were to be replaced.
“This decision will weaken Davutoglu’s power over the party. Davutoglu’s job will not be easy after this,” a senior AKP official told Reuters on Monday, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Islamist-rooted AK Party, a monolithic institution founded by Erdogan, has governed Turkey for the past 14 years. Critics accuse the president of behaving in an increasingly authoritarian manner, a charge he rejects.
Erdogan was required by the constitution to cut ties to the AKP when he became president in an August 2014 election after more than a decade as prime minister, because the head of state is supposed to be above party politics.
But he still commands deep loyalty in the party and has sought to maintain influence, regularly chairing cabinet meetings in his presidential palace and keeping the AKP’s executive committee packed with allies.
Davutoglu, officially party leader but overshadowed by Erdogan, has struggled to establish his own voice in the AKP. Removing his ability to appoint the provincial officials who make up the backbone of the party further weakens his standing.
“Davutoglu wants to carve out a political space for himself, but Erdogan is not intent on allowing the head of the executive - whether Davutoglu or anybody else - to have any significant degree of political independence,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the EDAM think-tank in Istanbul.
“Erdogan is intent on fully controlling both the executive but also the political agenda of the country and he can only do that if he has this degree of control.”
Omer Celik, deputy leader of the AKP and party spokesman, described the move as a technical step and said it did not point to any “crisis” in the party.
The authority to make party appointments originally rested with the AKP’s executive committee (MKYK) but was transferred to Erdogan as then-party leader in 2002, and passed on to Davutoglu when he succeeded Erdogan in 2014.
“This authority has been taken back by the MKYK so that issues concerning the party can be discussed intensively and in more detail,” Celik told reporters on Friday evening. “It is not right to consider this change as a very radical move.”
Staunch Erdogan loyalists are among the 50 members of the MKYK, including his son-in-law, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, and his former lawyer Hayati Yazici.
Davutoglu had little option but to sign the ruling handing back authority over appointments to the MKYK, several officials said, or else he would have risked a damaging public row.
Mehmet Ali Sahin, another deputy AKP leader, said in an interview on NTV that the decision has been taken unanimously and was simply meant to give more MPs a say over appointments.
“There has been a lot of speculation but there is no unrest within our party,” he said.
Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall and Asli Kandemir; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall