Turkey Asks, Erdogan Worries: What Will Gul Do?

The current President of the Republic mulls whether to stand against his old ally Prime Minister Erdogan in upcoming direct presidential elections. Turkey's political future is at stake.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gül attending a ceremony in Istanbul
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gül attending a ceremony in Istanbul
Boris Kálnoky

ISTANBUL — By May 9 we should know the name of the candidate from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the August presidential elections. Either President Abdullah Gül will withdraw entirely from the political scene or swap places with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who wants to be president.

Gül is the only remaining force in Turkey who can brake Erdogan and repair damaged relations with the European Union. The question is, will he try?

Shortly before the first AKP-led government the United States Embassy in Ankara, according to Wikileaks documents, depicted Güls’s relationship with Erdogan as "loyal" but "complex." Gül had his own goals and ambitions, the document says, and in personal discussions sometimes expressed frustration at playing second fiddle to the confrontational Erdogan.

What was once quiet irritation transformed into an increasingly open conflict after Gül became president in 2007.

Later a fateful change to the Constitution was made decreeing that henceforth the country’s president would be elected directly by the people. Up to this point, the job of deciding who would be president was up to the parliament.

A directly-elected president mostly goes hand-in-hand with a presidential system and this piqued Erdogan’s ambition to become an "executive president" — to use the term he recently started using. There was just one problem: Gül was president. And the change to the Constitution had left it unclear if after Gül’s current term he could run for a second one. So Erdogan got to work finding ways to reduce Gül’s power base which was only possible because as head of state Gül was no longer an AKP politician (as president he had to be "un-political"). Before the 2011 elections, Erdogan reportedly cleared the lists of parliamentary candidates of the names of many Gül supporters.

Then came the second move. In 2012, Erdogan ensured that parliament decided that Gül could not run for president again. The decision was however overturned by the Constitutional Court, and that decision paved the way for a potential fight for power between the two men.

In the Wikileaks documents there’s a portrait of Gül written by the then chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in Ankara, Robert Deutsch. Gül is described as a man who had a very religious upbringing and has an authoritative, polite character. His belief in Islam is unwavering, the report says, and he has the courage to stand by his convictions. He is not one to be pushed aside easily, and represents a moderate view within political Islam, Deutsch wrote. He could be considered as part of the "technocratic wing" of the AKP.

Taking distance

Gül may be polite and open to the world, but is also clearly a man rooted in his religion. Some observers even believe that Gül is much more Islamic than Erdogan. The US Embassy warned that both men should be judged not by their words but by their actions. Gül does after all come from the old world. His mother chose his bride, and because she was only 14 the wedding had to wait until she turned 15. Although she was a good student, she was taken out of school at that point and taught at home.

During the past few years — and particularly since the start of protests against Erdogan last June — Gül has increasingly taken his distance from his old ally. He advocates getting closer to Europe, was against the Twitter ban, and has stated publically that democracy is about more than just elections.

"I don’t know what he’s talking about," Erdogan responded. "Elections are all that matter to me."

What is Gül’s plan? All the polls show him far ahead of Erdogan should he run for the presidency again. He has actively expanded his alliances and networks, and signaled support for the biggest opposition party — the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — which promptly led the party to announce that it supported his candidacy. All of this only makes sense if Gül either does run again — against Erdogan — or if he takes over the prime minister position while Erdogan assumes the role of president.

As is frequently the case in murky situations, conspiracy theories abound. It is said that the influential, reform-oriented Gülen Movement stands behind Gül. And together they sponsored the protest movement active in Turkey since last summer. In early April Gül announced that the time of speculation was nearing an end and that "the day has come to talk about this."

At the end of April or beginning of May he intended to sit down with Erdogan to talk over the matter of the presidency. But then he made an announcement earlier than foreseen, and on his own: he would not hold political office any longer. And switching jobs "like Putin and Medvedev" would "not be good for Turkey."

It is unclear if this is a tactic or the truth. Will the stalwart Gül really leave politics? But a deeper reading of his remark leads to another conclusion — that he will run for president again. The presidency is officially not a “political” post, it is supra-political.

If Gül stays president, Erdogan will have lost the internal fight for power but retained his power over Turkey. In the end everything depends on the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: will Gül openly defy Erdogan the next time the latter wants to limit freedoms? He will in all likelihood have a chance to provide an answer to that question soon enough.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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