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Turkey

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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Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

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