By Dorian Jones
As close political collaborators for over a decade, President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan built the Justice and Development Party into Turkey’s dominant political force. But now, the two men appear poised to part ways.
“It is all about the presidency. It is all about Gül’s position and his political career,” observed political columnist Kadri Gursel of the daily Milliyet. “He wants to continue as president. We know very well the prime minister wants to be the president.”
At the moment, it is the 58-year-old prime minister who wields real power in Turkey, with the presidency being a largely symbolic post, a figurehead selected by parliament. But in 2014, Turkey will, for the first time, directly elect its president. And it is the country’s worst kept political secret that Erdoğan aspires to be Turkey’s first directly elected president. He has already stated that his current, third term as prime minister, which ends in 2015, will be his last.
“For Erdoğan, the most important thing is to capture the presidential post and turn the system into a presidential or semi-presidential system,” claimed Assistant Professor of Politics Yuksel Tasgin, an expert on center-right Turkish politics at Istanbul’s Marmara University.
Erdoğan and Gül have served as the twin face of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since its founding in 2001. Behind the scenes, though, there may be a personal element that is driving the two apart, suggested Gursel, the Milliyet columnist. “Between two powerful figures, personal discontent can turn [out] to be political, and this is where we are going.”
To fulfill his evident ambition of winning the presidency, Erdoğan seems to believe that he must gain the support of nationalists, who make up a growing percentage of Turkish voters, noted Tasgin. Nationalist deputies’ votes would also be required to secure the two-thirds majority of Turkey’s 550-member parliament needed to change the constitution and grant stronger powers to the presidency.
Gursel noted that Erdoğan is courting nationalists’ support by “moving to a much harder line” in several key areas, in particular the Kurdish issue. Amid this process, Gursel continued, Erdoğan “is creating a political vacuum, and this is being filled by Gül. We are seeing Gül being pro-reform, pro-European Union, contrary to the prime minister.”
Last October, Erdoğan did not hide his frustration about what he described as Turkey’s “double-headed” political system. President Gül played down the prime minister’s comments, claiming the two men were in harmony.
“Gül seems reluctant to confront Erdoğan directly,” observed political commentator Aslı Aydıntaşbaş of the Skyturk 360 TV news channel. “But by making his different views very public, in some sense he is challenging Erdoğan. He is saying ‘I am also [a] candidate, either for the president’s office or [the] prime minister’s office,’ and it is having an appeal to some people who are frustrated with Erdoğan’s increasing hard-line style.”
Many people in Turkey wonder whether Gül, 62, would actually run against Erdoğan.
Arguably, Erdoğan has no equal in Turkish politics when it comes to campaigning. The charismatic prime minister is never more at home than when he is on the hustings. Gül, on the other hand, is not noted for his campaign style. Added to that, Gül no longer has a party machine behind him, an important consideration in a large country like Turkey. When Gül became president in 2007, Erdoğan ordered his supporters to be purged from high-level positions within the AKP.
Aydıntaşbaş said that, so long as the office of prime minister retains substantial powers, the two men could carry out a Russian-style political swap, mimicking the duet performed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Opinion polls point to Erdoğan being a giant when it comes to party politics, his popularity towering over that of potential rivals. But it is a different story when people are asked about the presidency: some recent polls have given Gül a strong lead even among AKP supporters.
“There will be a clash. There will be a strong competition between them,” predicted columnist Gursel. “But will there be a split in the pro-Islamic movement? That is too early to say.”
A wild card in the looming confrontation is cleric Fetullah Gülen, who heads the largest, and by far the most powerful, Islamic movement in Turkey. The movement has major business and media interests, as well as a network of supporters across the country.
Earlier during the AKP’s tenure in power, Erdoğan actively cultivated ties to the Gülen network. But, of late, some observers have picked up signs of tension in Erdoğan’s relationship with Gülenists. For example, newspapers and television channels linked to Gülen routinely play up the differences between the prime minister and president, and invariably to the detriment of Erdoğan.
The prime minister “gave them a lot of power and they have secured a degree of autonomy from Erdoğan. So he wants to reduce their power,” commented Marmara University’s Tasgin. “There is an ongoing purge going on within the state, especially within the police and judiciary of Gülen supporters.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.