Turkish headline: "Crisis at the top: the duel between spokesmen has finally brought the Gül-Erdogan tensions to the surface".
BACKGROUND: Although there is little to differentiate between them in terms of ambition or ideological commitment, their contrasting personalities have given Erdogan (born 1954) and Gül (born 1950) very different public personas. Gül has been consistently calm and calculating, his fluent English and apparently urbane manner creating the impression of a cosmopolitan conciliator. Whereas Erdoğan’s confrontational irascibility and brusque, unpolished rhetoric has resonated with the Turkish masses while alienating the educated elite.
But the differences in their careers and personalities also resulted in a disparity in their respective political influence. After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002, Gül served for four months as prime minister -- while Erdoğan was temporarily banned from holding political office -- and subsequently for over four years as foreign minister. But there was never any doubt that Erdoğan was the AKP’s main electoral asset. Although Gül was one of the few ministers prepared to disagree with Erdoğan at cabinet meetings, he was aware that he could not compete with Erdoğan’s raw, emotional appeal to the Turkish electorate and could never mount a direct challenge for the leadership of the AKP. In fact, despite his high profile, during the AKP’s first years in power, Gül had a very limited powerbase within the party; as the same qualities that enabled him to converse easily with foreign journalists and members of the diplomatic community in Ankara also distanced him from the AKP’s grassroots.
It was only after he became president in August 2007 that Gül really started to build a popular support base, as his calm calculating manner – which had looked out of place in the hectoring and invective that passes for political debate in Turkey – began to appear statesmanlike. Nevertheless, Gül and his advisors remain aware that, although the gap has narrowed, Erdoğan would still emerge victorious in any straight contest between them. But Gül’s increased popularity has also made Erdoğan wary. Although he is confident of securing more votes than Gül in a presidential election, there is concern that a bitterly fought campaign could be damaging to both men; and even split the conservative vote and allow a third candidate to mount a challenge for the presidency. As a result, starting in 2010, Erdoğan’s and Gül’s advisors began to hold discussions to find a compromise.
At the time that Gül took office in August 2007, the president was appointed by parliament and could serve a single, seven-year term. In October 2007, the Turkish constitution was amended to allow for popular elections, a five-year term, and a maximum of two terms in office. However, the constitutional amendments did not specify which system would apply to Gül.
Initially, Erdoğan appears to have calculated that Gül would be subject to the new system, meaning that his term would end in August 2012. This would have enabled Erdoğan to secure a fresh mandate in the general election that was due by July 2011, spend a year drafting a new constitution that included a transition to a presidential system and then take over the presidency in August 2012. But the new system also raised the possibility of Gül standing for a second five-year term.
Gül's advisors made it clear that he would be prepared to step down in August 2012 but only under the parliamentary system, which would mean that he could replace Erdoğan as prime minister. As Erdoğan had no desire to exchange the real political power of the prime ministry for a largely titular presidency, his advisors began to look for alternatives, such as offering Gül a prestigious international position. In late 2010, Turkish diplomats serving abroad were even instructed to try to gauge whether was any support for Gül replacing Ban Ki-moon as secretary general of the UN when his term expired at the end of December 2011. The results of their research were resoundingly negative. As hopes of a compromise began to fade, the power struggle between Erdoğan and Gül began to intensify.
IMPLICATIONS: In the aftermath of the AKP’s landslide victory in the June 12, 2011, general election, Erdoğan announced that he would not run for parliament again and that the government’s first priority during its new term in office would be the promulgation of a new constitution. But, unless he could persuade Gül to move aside, Erdoğan had no incentive to introduce a presidential system.
Erdoğan had already purged a number of deputies he suspected of being sympathetic to Gül from the AKP’s list of candidates for the June 12, 2011 election. On January 19, 2012, Erdoğan used his increased control over the AKP parliamentary party to push through a law stating that Gül was subject to the constitutional provisions in force in August 2007, which would mean him standing down in August 2014 and being unable to run for a second term. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) immediately applied to the Constitutional Court for the law’s annulment.
In September 2010, Erdoğan had attempted to increase the government’s control over the judiciary by introducing a series of constitutional amendments, including diluting the influence of hard-line secularists in the Constitutional Court by adding new members, most of whom were effectively chosen by the president. On June 15, 2012, in a decision which appears to have been motivated less by logic than by gratitude to Gül for appointing them, the members of the Constitutional Court ruled that Gül’s term was seven years and that he could then stand for an additional five-year term.
Despite Gül’s announcement that he and Erdoğan would wait until closer to the time before discussing whether or not to stand in the 2014 presidential election, both are aware that they cannot afford to delay that long. Since the Constitutional Court’s decision, both men have begun to maneuver in order to try to strengthen their position amid signs that a power struggle which to date has been mainly conducted behind the scenes may finally go public. In the weeks following the ruling, several of Erdoğan’s supporters used the press or social media to express their “expectation” that Gül would step aside; only for presidential spokesperson Ahmet Sever to publicly note that it was his “personal view” that Gül might decide to stand for a second term.
There is no doubt that Erdoğan is currently in the stronger position. Even without it being formalized in a presidential system, Erdoğan currently exercises more political power than any Turkish politician in the last 50 years, and is also able to shape how events are covered by the largely sycophantic or supine Turkish media. But Gül also has his allies. Even if it has been damaged by the alleged involvement of some of its members in the manipulation of judicial processes, the Gülen Movement still enjoys considerable influence through its vast network of companies, NGOs and media outlets and has made no secret of its support for Gül in his power struggle with Erdoğan.
Even if the presidency currently has very limited powers, Gül remains responsible for choosing or approving the appointment of candidates to hundreds of bureaucratic positions. Although he is astute enough not to risk antagonizing the public by blocking everyone he suspects of being an Erdoğan loyalist, over the months ahead Gül can be expected to accelerate his efforts to strengthen his own powerbase within the bureaucracy at Erdoğan’s expense. Similarly, despite Erdoğan’s purge of suspected Gül loyalists from the candidate lists for the 2011 general election, Gül still has supporters in the AKP parliamentary party. Erdoğan is also known to suspect that a handful of ministers are secretly sympathetic to Gül. Although he is unlikely to dismiss them – not least because he has tended to regard the dismissal of someone he has appointed as an admission of poor judgment – Erdoğan can be expected to marginalize them and exclude them from critical decision-making processes.
CONCLUSIONS: There currently appears no prospect of a compromise agreement which could defuse the tensions between Erdoğan and Gül. Erdoğan remains committed to installing himself at the head of a presidential system and ruling the country for two consecutive five-year terms. Privately, high-ranking bureaucrats report that deadlines for the completion of potentially popular investments and grandiose schemes are now invariably set for mid-2014 in order to give Erdoğan more material for his presidential election campaign.
Although he would prefer not to have to run against Erdoğan in a presidential election, Gül is also reluctant to step down unless it is under the existing system, which would allow him to exchange the presidency for the exercise of real political power as prime minister. Erdoğan’s advisors still occasionally discuss the possibility of persuading Gül to take a prestigious international position. But, even if one could be found, there appears little prospect of Gül – or, in the prevailing climate, any other Turkish candidate – receiving the required international support.
Much of the maneuvering for influence between Erdoğan and Gül is likely to continue to take place behind the scenes. Both men are aware that, if either publicly challenges the other, he risks being accused of putting his own ambitions before the interests of the country. However, it is possible that, over the months ahead, one will try to pre-empt or outdo the other in their public statements about specific issues in an attempt to associate themselves with popular causes at the other’s expense.
But there is also little doubt that, in the absence of any agreement, the tensions between Erdoğan and Gül can be expected to continue to rise over the months ahead; and the more the tensions increase, the greater the chance of a public confrontation, which could have serious repercussions for domestic political stability at a time when Turkey is facing a number of severe challenges, from the crisis in Syria to its own Kurdish issue, which now appears to be entering a critical phase.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".