Arınç and Erdoğan: the Thatcherite rift

2015 general election, Commentary

Bülent Arınç’s comments expose more Thatcherite parallels in the Turkish prime minister’s leadership

There are signs of a growing rift between Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his influential deputy, Bülent Arınç, triggered by the furore over Mr Erdoğan’s plans for legislation to prevent mixed sex dormitories at schools and universities across the country.

The plans were leaked in an article in the conservative and generally pro-government Zaman newspaper at the start of this week. Ahmet Dönmez’s piece quoted the prime minister as saying during a private AK Party meeting that the government was looking at ways of supervising university dormitories.

“Young girls, university students, are living in the same house as male students. There is no supervision of this. This contradicts our conservative democratic structure,” he is reported to have said at the Kızılcahamam resort north of Ankara. Bülent Arınç was also at that meeting.

Just asparagas

As government spokesman, Mr Arınç holds a regular press conference after the cabinet of ministers meet. When quizzed by reporters after Monday’s cabinet, Mr Arınç rubbished reports that the government planned to start inspecting dormitories and organising raids on suspected mixed-sex venues.

The prime minister has no such plans, he assured the journalists. He even used that delightful Turkish word “asparagas”, meaning exaggerated news, to dismiss the reports.

Funny then that the prime minister should go and contradict his own spokesman the next day.

“I am not in the business of denying things I have said,” he told AK Party MPs at a public meeting on Tuesday. “We have received intelligence that girls and boys are sharing homes. We do not know what’s going on inside. Anything could be happening.”

Don’t ignore me

This afternoon, Mr Arınç appeared on TRT Turk in Belgrade, where he referred to the events of the past week and agreed there was a clear contradiction between his words on Monday and those of the prime minister on Tuesday. The prime minister never told him he misspoke, Mr Arınç said, nor did he alert him ahead of Tuesday’s speech.

But the deputy prime minister’s words this afternoon, though softly spoken, contained a barely-concealed warning: “I am not just a minister. I have my own specific burdens, I am not a minister who just occupies a seat.”

“I should not be ignored,” he added.

Mr Arınç went on to pledge loyalty to the prime minister. He spoke at length about how he and Mr Erdoğan and cut from the same politial cloth and entered politics for the same reason. He also announced during that interview that he would stand neither for a mayoral seat at next year’s election, nor for parliament the year after that.

But three things should not escape anyone’s attention.

First, Mr Arınç acknowledged there were differences in what he and the prime minister have been saying. That’s significant by Turkish standards. Most ministers would apologise privately to the prime minister for contradicting him and apologise publicly for getting it so awfully wrong. Not Bülent Arınç.

Second, he asserted his right to have a different opinion to his leader. Again, that’s practically unheard of in the AK Party.

Third, he used a live interview on Turkish state television – which just happens to be in his cabinet portfolio – to make his point. The platform is significant here: a newspaper report could be dismissed as distorting what he said; a private TV station could interrupt or end the broadcast. But Nasuhi Güngör barely murmured during the “interview”.

What is more, Mr Arınç posted a short message on Twitter after the interview that read: “We do not seek new prohibitions…” There can be no doubting his opinion.

Heseltine or Howe?

Nor is this the first time Mr Arınç has disagreed with the prime minister. It was widely reported, firstly by Taraf‘s Mehmet Baransu, that the deputy prime minister almost resigned from the cabinet and the AK Party in response to Mr Erdoğan’s handling of the Gezi Park protests. He was only persuaded to stay by President Abdullah Gül, the Baransu report claimed.

In May, I pointed about the parallels between Mr Erdoğan’s Gezi Park record and Margaret Thatcher’s response to her country’s Poll Tax riots of 1990. I wrote: “Then, as now, a stubborn, hawkish prime minister promised to plough on regardless. In Mrs Thatcher’s case, she was out of office by the end of the year.”

That year, a leadership contest against Margaret Thatcher was sparked when her foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe said he could no longer work with her. The challenger to was Michael Heseltine, who had often clashed with her in cabinet and resigned several years previously. Neither Howe nor Heseltine succeeded her, but Thatcher did go.

Is Bülent Arınç a Heseltine or a Howe?

Last modified: Thursday 1 September 2016

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Arınç and Erdoğan: the Thatcherite rift

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