ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Delays in efforts to form a coalition government in Turkey are buying time for President Tayyip Erdogan, heightening the chances of a snap election which could see his AK Party regain its majority and leaving the opposition floundering.
A month after an election which saw the AKP lose its ability to govern alone for the first time, talks to form a coalition have yet to begin. Opposition parties are as fragmented as ever, and Erdogan - from the shadows - is calculating how best to maintain his grip.
The June 7 vote plunged Turkey into political uncertainty not seen since the unstable coalition governments of the 1990s and thwarted, for now, Erdogan’s ambition to turn the largely figurehead presidency he assumed last year into the powerful executive position he had all but taken for granted.
The man who has dominated Turkey’s political landscape for more than a decade is ill-disposed to sharing power. Despite his repeated calls for a new government to be formed quickly, his interests - and those of the AKP he founded - appear to lie in the failure of coalition talks and a new election.
“A coalition will be hard to form and impossible to maintain. There is need for an urgent snap election, through which our people will show their will,” said one AK Party elder familiar with Erdogan’s thinking.
Their hope is that a re-run would restore a simple AK majority, as voters who turned their back on the AKP in June balk at any suggestion of a return to the coalition bickering that pitched Turkey into economic crisis in the 1990s.
That prospect is one that would disturb NATO partners eager for stability in a country bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, with Islamic State militants ensconced hundreds of metres from borders constantly criss-crossed by refugees.
Erdogan is turning “banishment” to the shadows - under the constitution, the president is excluded from party politics - to his advantage. Others may bicker and snipe, but the man who had estranged many by his raucous, combative manner in recent years, now holds his peace and appears untainted by the fray.
“The opposition is being worn down,” said Hakan Bayrakci, chairman of polling firm SONAR. “Erdogan is promoting the image that they are fighting against each other.”
An IPSOS poll shortly after the June 7 results suggested the AKP would have had 4 percent more support if voters had known the outcome in advance, although subsequent polls have contradicted this, suggesting its support could fall.
Erdogan had been expected to give Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu the mandate to form a new coalition government this week, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period to succeed or face a new election.
That has yet to happen, with Erdogan repeating late on Tuesday that he will give the mandate only once a new parliamentary administrative board is formed, prompting opposition MPs to accuse him of stalling.
“Erdogan needs time to get where he wants to. He needs to change the AKP administration first. His second aim is to continue until snap elections with an AKP government,” said Ozer Sencar, chairman of pollster Metropoll.
Some opposition MPs have suggested Erdogan is stalling to sow opposition disarray and ensure the AKP is still firmly in power for a military council in August, where top commanders are appointed. This meeting comes as Ankara weighs military intervention on the Syrian border, well aware of the Turkish army’s past reluctance to act beyond national frontiers.
Reining in a military which forced four governments from power in the second half of the 20th Century was one of Erdogan’s priorities during his 12 years as prime minister.
Officials in Erdogan’s office rejected any suggestion of a deliberate delay, with one describing such claims as “baseless”.
But it is not just a hold over the armed forces, long suspicious of Erdogan’s Islamist roots, that he is keen to maintain. The courts, media, universities and financial regulators have all come under tighter control during his tenure, with the AKP appointing many of their most senior administrative figures.
“In recent years, Erdogan has turned Turkey’s regulatory institutions into censorship and sanctions bodies,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, wrote in a report this week.
“Without an AKP majority in the parliament or cabinet, however, he would be forced to accept a gradual decline in his power as these institutions undergo membership changes,” he said, predicting Erdogan would push for an early election.
But AKP elders may also need to convince some of the party’s newer members about the need for a repeat vote, possibly in November; particularly those who won parliamentary seats for the first time in June and see going back to the voters as unnecessarily risky.
“What will change at an early election? It’s not like the polls show our vote at 50 percent,” said one new AKP deputy.
“Let’s say we held the election and had the same number of seats. What then?”
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Nick Tattersall