BACKGROUND: The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül duo is in many ways what created the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and made it uniquely successful. While Erdoğan was the charismatic, populist politician that could rouse crowds, Gül was the cautious and likeable political operator. And while these differences in character made Erdoğan the natural leader of the AKP, it did not mean a towering dominance over the party. Indeed, both men have equally impeccable credentials within the Islamic conservative movement, going back to the early 1980s. In fact, Gül’s credentials are arguably stronger: both sought election to parliament for the Islamist Welfare Party in 1991; Gül won a seat in his native Kayseri, and went on after the 1995 election to be a State Minister in the short-lived government of Necmettin Erbakan. As for Erdoğan, he lost his Rize seat narrowly to another Welfare candidate. Paradoxically, thus, it was a losing bid for parliament that forced Erdoğan to seek the post of Istanbul mayor in 1994 – which, of course, was what propelled him to national fame.
When the AKP took power in November 2002, Gül was its first Prime Minister, since Erdoğan was barred from seeking political office after a prison sentence. Only in the spring of 2003 was he able to gain a seat, at which point Gül vacated the premiership, becoming Foreign Minister. In addition, two other figures – Bülent Arınç and Abdülatif Şener – were influential in the early AKP. Only after Gül left government to become president in 2007 did Erdoğan begin to consolidate his now near-total control over the AKP.
It is now more than a year that Erdoğan openly expresses his support for a presidential system of government. While he does not say so openly, it is clear that he wants to be Turkey’s first elected president – and to that, one with greatly increased powers. According to the AKP’s proposed blueprint, any semblance of checks and balances would disappear, resembling the Russian system much more than the American one, let alone France’s semi-presidential system. The president would have the power to dissolve parliament, would preside over the meetings of the cabinet, he would personally appoint cabinet ministers, as well half of the judges of the constitutional court, all ambassadors and university rectors.
Erdoğan faced only one problem: the 2007 constitutional amendment that made Turkey’s future presidents popularly elected made no reference to whether the incumbent president would serve under the old system, meaning a single seven-year term; or the new one, in which case the term would be five years with the possibility of being re-elected once. Having purged Gül supporters from the AKP parliamentary ranks ahead of the 2011 elections, Erdoğan in January 2012 made his first direct move against Gül, as he had parliament pass a law stating the Gül was bound by the old rules, implying he could not stand for re-election. But the same summer, the Constitutional Court handed Erdoğan a blow, resolving not only that Gül’s term was seven years, but that he could then be re-elected for a five-year term. From that point, the space for compromise between the two men shrunk considerably. (See 13 August 2012 Turkey Analyst)
IMPLICATIONS: Presidential politics explains much of the posturing of the two men since then. Erdoğan has kept pushing for a presidential system, and while his u-turn on the Kurdish issue is partially conditioned by the regional realities since the Syrian civil war broke out, it is certainly not unrelated to the Kurdish BDP holding enough seats in the parliament to help Erdoğan over the threshold to send a new, presidential constitution to a referendum – and being the only party willing to even consider it, provided its demands are met.
As for Gül, he has begun to develop the public contrast between his vision for Turkey and Erdoğan’s. Where Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian, making comments and statements interfering ever more into the private lives of citizens, Gül has made himself the spokesman of further democratization and of reform. Most notably, Gül held a seminal address to Parliament on October 1, 2012, in which he urged deep reforms (See Turkey Analyst, 21 November 2012 issue). Where Erdoğan has veered ever more away from Turkey’s European integration, famously suggesting not only that Turkey should join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but that it is “stronger” than the EU and “shares values” with Turkey, Gül has emerged as the spokesman of Turkey’s continued European vocation.
Developments have not been limited to posturing. Most important (but not new) is the growing consolidation of the Fethullah Gülen movement’s support for Gül. Given the financial and media resources available to the Gülen movement, such support is crucial for Gül either to challenge Erdoğan directly and publicly at some point – or simply to improve his bargaining position with his erstwhile ally. It is therefore interesting to observe how organizations associated with the movement have begun aligning themselves with Gül’s positions – such as the influential Journalists and Writers Union’s recent open letter in support of media freedom. This is all the more striking given the Gülen movement’s association, in the public mind and in the view of most experts, with many of the arrests in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, and a further indication of the movement’s understanding of the damage those cases have done to its image, and its efforts to recoup some of its goodwill at home and abroad. (See Turkey Analyst, 19 April 2013 issue)
Furthermore, both Gül and the Gülen movement appear to be exploring a dialogue with the opposition CHP. In December, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had indicated that the CHP could hypothetically back Gül for the presidency; on March 6, Gül welcomed Kılıçdaroğlu to the presidential palace. On March 15, the Rumi Forum – the Gülen movement’s flagship organization in Washington DC – in an unprecedented move welcomed a delegation from the CHP and hosted it for a roundtable where it was able to express its views on the situation in Turkey.
Furthermore, Gül and his advisors appear busy building a political organization that could be turned into a political party at short notice. This was first reported by Orhan Bursalı in Cumhuriyet on March 11, 2013. Knowledgeable sources in Turkey confirm to the Turkey Analyst that such efforts are taking place, and that Gül’s advisors are scouting the political scene for suitable persons. Indeed, it is possible to draw a profile of Gül’s emerging political force, which consists of several groups. One group consists of frustrated AKP members who have tired of Erdoğan, in particular the more pro-European and democratically minded in the party. Observers indicate that a leading force in this group could be Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan. A second group consists of people close to the Gülen movement, which have been sidelined by Erdoğan since the 2011 elections. A third group appears to consist of former politicians aligned with the center-right ANAP and DYP parties in the 1990s.
In other words, Gül’s political support base is more centrist than the AKP. Should Gül create a party of his own, it would for all practical purposes resemble Turgut Özal’s ANAP, which unified religious conservatives, liberals, and Turkish nationalists. Özal may be an example in more than one way: just like Gül but unlike Erdoğan, Özal was conciliatory and brought people together, and was strongly pro-Western. And most importantly, Gül may have felt growing public support. Indeed, a number of opinion polls suggest that a majority of Turks would support him over Erdoğan for the presidency.
One scenario mentioned by Turkish experts is that Gül could veto a proposed Erdoğan constitution, which could cause a split in the AKP, and lead to the formation of a parliamentary group loyal to Gül. In this scenario, Gül would stand for re-election to the presidency. How this would affect Erdoğan’s position may chiefly depend on how many MPs Gül could entice to defect; only 50 of the AKP’s roughly 320 are needed to deprive the government of a majority and triggering a crisis and possibly early elections.
CONCLUSIONS: The likelihood of such a development depends on a number of factors, not least how Erdoğan’s peace talks with the PKK develop. Yet it is clear that the trenches separating the Gül and Erdoğan camps are growing deeper, and more open. While a public rift would cause short-term instability, it would in all likelihood be a positive force for Turkey’s continued democratization and European integration. Erdoğan’s increasingly personality-centered system would be thwarted; and the Islamic conservative movement could be pulled back increasingly to the center, just as it was in the early 2000s.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© 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".