June 9, 2015 / 1:58 PM / in 2 years

Erdogan looms large as Turkey's AK Party mulls coalition options

ANKARA (Reuters) - Whether it teams up with the nationalist or secularist opposition, Turkey’s ruling AK Party must navigate the same obstacle in its search for a junior coalition partner: the ambition of President Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) looks on after arriving at Esenboga Airport, in Ankara, Turkey, June 8, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Though his efforts to forge a powerful executive presidency have for now been thwarted, Erdogan has held on to the reins of government despite stepping down as prime minister last August to take on the largely figurehead role of president.

Opposition leaders who could now enter government in a coalition have made clear they will not tolerate his meddling, suggesting his days of hosting cabinet meetings in his new 1,000-room palace could be over, at least for now.

“A coalition seems inevitable, and the AK Party will be in it. That is evident,” a senior party official told Reuters, at the start of what he said could be weeks of strategy meetings with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the AKP top brass.

Erdogan’s past utterances on political opponents scarcely smooth the way to compromise. Last year, at the height of a corruption scandal he said had been engineered to topple him, he dubbed his rivals terrorists and traitors locked in an “alliance of evil”.

Sunday’s election, in which the Islamist-rooted AKP lost its parliamentary majority, ended more than a decade of single-party rule, dealt a blow to Erdogan’s ambitions for a U.S.-style presidency and plunged Turkey into uncertainty not seen since the 1990s.

Though it could try to rule alone in a minority government, senior party sources said the AKP was determined to at least try to form a coalition, with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) seen as its most likely partner.

The negotiations will not be easy. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, who has spoken out against Erdogan’s ambitions for an executive presidency, warned on Sunday that the Turkish leader should “remain within his constitutional limits”.

The MHP’s core supporters are also vehemently opposed to peace talks with Kurdish militants meant to end a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s southeast, a project to which Erdogan and Davutoglu both say they are fully committed.

“The most likely (coalition partner) is MHP due to the similarity in support bases, but their stance is clear, the peace process must end,” the senior AKP official said.

“Time will tell how this can be overcome, or whether it can be overcome.”

The MHP, founded in 1969, was last in government as part of a coalition forged after a 1999 election in which it came second. That government fell apart in the 2001 financial crisis, leading to an early election won by the newly founded AKP.

In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, Erdogan repeatedly cited that episode as an example of the unstable alternative to single-party AKP rule.

NO EASY OPTIONS

In a procedural move, Davutoglu met Erdogan on Tuesday and resigned, but will continue as prime minister until the new government is formed. Erdogan will ask Davutoglu to form that government once official election results are published, which may not be until next week.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was the biggest winner in Sunday’s election, crossing the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament as a party for the first time. Its leader, Selahattin Demirtas, on Tuesday again ruled out taking part in any coalition involving the AKP.

Should talks with the MHP fail, the AKP could consider a coalition with parliament’s second-biggest group, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), AKP sources said, although that would mean bridging a gaping ideological divide.

Erdogan, champion of the conservative, pious masses, views the CHP, the party of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as the bastion of a secular elite whose liberal mentality he blames for much that is wrong with the country.

“A coalition with CHP cannot be completely ruled out. Numerically, we would have a serious majority,” a second senior AKP official said. “Of course Erdogan is one of the biggest handicaps to such a deal. But there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome in politics.”

If no working coalition can be formed after 45 days, Erdogan could call a fresh election, likely to be held in the autumn. But it would be a risky strategy, with a question mark over the ability of the AKP to significantly improve its result.

Davutoglu told party members to carry out polls to try to determine the likely impact on AKP support of a snap election.

“We shouldn’t be the side running away ... People need to know that coalition possibilities are being pushed to their limit,” a third AKP source involved in the discussions said.

“If it becomes unavoidable, we always have the minority government card.”

Either way, Turkey is likely to face another election before the completion of the next four-year parliamentary term.

“Whether this will be after 45 days, one year or two, depends on the attitudes and the paths taken by the parties from here,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think-tank.

Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Nick Tattersall in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton

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