Wed, Oct 10, 2012 | By Gareth H. Jenkins
This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst, vol. 5 no. 19 (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. © Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012.
On October 1, 2012, in an address to parliament, President Abdullah Gül criticized the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan for its failure to push ahead with Turkey’s bid for EU membership and protested the continuing imprisonment of seven elected opposition members of the assembly. His speech came a day after Erdoğan had effectively launched his campaign to succeed Gül as president in August 2014. Speaking at the biannual congress of the ruling AKP, Erdoğan implicitly signaled his presidential ambitions by offering to serve the country in a capacity other than prime minister; while delegates were handed leaflets advocating the replacement of the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential one. No one was in any doubt as to who Erdoğan believed should head the new system. As a result, Gül’s speech to parliament was also a public gesture of defiance, a calculated demonstration of his unwillingness to meekly cede the presidency to Erdoğan.
Ever since the AKP was founded in 2001, Erdoğan has been its greatest electoral asset. His brusque manner, raw emotionality, pithy phrasing and confrontational personality have made him the most successful politician of his generation; his popularity apparently undimmed by his increasing authoritarianism.
The Turkish political system has few checks and balances. Political parties are run as personal fiefdoms, with leaders even selecting the candidates for parliament. Both the judiciary and the bureaucracy have always been highly politicized. In the decade before the AKP won its first term in office in November 2002, the main obstacle to a politician establishing a monopoly of power was the frequency with which governments changed, making it difficult for any one party to become entrenched in the system. But the AKP has now been in office for ten years. What little institutionalization that existed before it came to power has been gradually eroded. Under the current constitution, the Turkish presidency is largely a titular position. In many ways, Erdoğan’s ambition to introduce a presidential system represents an attempt to formalize and extend the already excessive de facto concentration of political power in his own hands.
Initially, Erdoğan appears to have been confident that Gül could be persuaded either go into retirement or be placated with a prestigious international position. The concern was not that Gül would win more votes than Erdoğan if he stood against in the presidential election, but that his candidacy could split the conservative vote and perhaps leave the way open for a third candidate.
This assessment was shared by Gül and his advisors. During discreet negotiations with Erdoğan’s aides, Gül’s advisors refused to guarantee that he would not run for re-election — not because they believed that he could defeat Erdoğan but in order to extract concessions in return for him withdrawing his candidacy. When it became clear that Gül was unlikely to be able to take up a sufficiently prestigious international position, the focus of his efforts shifted to preventing the introduction of presidential system — in the hope that, if he stepped down from the presidency in 2014, he could return to active politics, probably at the head of the AKP.
However, a recent opinion poll has changed the calculations by suggesting that, if he ran against Erdoğan for the presidency, Gül could attract a large number of tactical votes from supporters of opposition parties. There is little to choose between Erdoğan and Gül in terms of ideological commitment. But Gül’s calm public personality and softly spoken manner have resulted in him being regarded as more pluralistic and conciliatory.
On September 26, 2012, the Metropoll research company published the results of a poll which suggested that, if they were the only candidates in 2014, 50.9 percent of those asked would vote for Gül as president and only 21.7 percent for Erdoğan. Tellingly, 48 percent of supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said that, if they had to choose between the two, they would vote for Gül, and only 5 percent for Erdoğan. For supporters of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the figures were 58 percent for Gül and 7 percent for Erdoğan.
On September 10, 2012, another research company, Konsensus, had published the results of a poll in which voters were asked who they would like to see as president. Erdoğan received the support of 32.3 percent, ahead of Gül on 31.8 percent, with the remainder opting for opposition politicians. In a similar poll conducted by Konsensus in June 2012, 41.8 percent said that they would vote for Erdoğan and only 20.8 percent for Gül. But a Konsensus poll in March 2012 had put support for Erdoğan at only 16.9 percent, compared with 48.8 percent for Gül.
Whatever the accuracy of the polls, they are unlikely to have made Erdoğan more confident of defeating Gül in a straight race. Nor will they have discouraged Gül from trying to prevent the introduction of a presidential system.
Turkish domestic politics are already becoming increasingly indexed to Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. At the AKP congress on September 30, 2012, Erdoğan purged 21 of the 50 members of the party’s executive committee and replaced them with people he believed to be loyal to himself in order to make it more difficult for Gül to return and take over the party.
Erdoğan had carried out a similar purge before the June 12, 2011, general election, removing lower-ranking party members he considered to be close to Gül from the AKP’s list of candidates. However, he was reluctant to move against some of ministers. For example, Erdoğan has long suspected that Economics Minister Ali Babacan is a Gül sympathizer. But he is also aware that Babacan is regarded inside and outside the country as successfully managing the economy. However, in recent weeks, Babacan has become increasingly marginalized and, when it comes to economic policy, Erdoğan has started to listen more to other ministers whom he regards as being loyal to himself. At the AKP congress on September 30, 2012, Erdoğan appointed Numan Kurtulmuş — whom he had just brought into the party and thus regarded as being loyal to him — as AKP deputy chair responsible for economic affairs.
Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions are also shaping a broad range of policies, from foreign relations and investment projects to domestic affairs and the economy. For example, during September 2012, Erdoğan overrode the protestations of many in his government — who argued that they would be inflationary — and introduced increases in indirect taxes and hikes in state prices for energy, calculating that it was better if inflation rose now rather than nearer to the presidential election. Similarly, Erdoğan has initiated a plan to bring forward the next local elections from March 2014 to late 2013 in order to avoid the possibility of voters suffering “election fatigue” by the time of the presidential elections in summer 2014.
Gül’s options are more limited. To date, he has avoided confronting Erdoğan directly, aware that the rise in his public popularity since he became president in August 2007 is largely the result of his ability to appear controlled and statesmanlike — particularly in comparison with Erdoğan’s abrasive volatility. Instead, at a time of increasing concerns about Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, Gül has sought to present himself as a force for engagement and conciliation — as he did in his speech to parliament on October 1, 2012.
Gül also enjoys the support of the Fethullah Gülen Movement, with whom he has always enjoyed cordial relations without ever becoming an outspoken advocate of Gülen’s ideas. Ironically, the actions of the Gülen Movement have often been in direct contradiction to the image that Gül is trying to project. Gülen sympathizers in the press and the judicial system have been the main driving force behind a string of highly politicized cases that have seen hundreds of perceived rivals and opponents — including many journalists — imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
There is no evidence that Gül would welcome the use of such methods to further his political ambitions. However, it is possible that members of the movement acting on their own initiative may seek to discredit or damage Erdoğan. In February 2012, Gülen sympathizers tried to issue a summons to Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, an Erdoğan appointee, on allegations of aiding the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The attempt failed. Erdoğan responded by initiating a partial purge of suspected Gülen sympathizers in the police and judiciary. Over the following months, the movement lay low. However, in recent weeks its media outlets have begun to increase their criticism of Erdoğan. Significantly, the website of the movement’s English language daily, Today’s Zaman, took the unprecedented step of publishing a full translation of Gül’s speech to parliament on October 1, 2012 — presumably in the hope of rallying foreign support for Gül in his power struggle with Erdoğan.
It is currently unclear whether Gül will change strategy and, instead of trying to extract concessions from Erdoğan in return for not announcing his own candidacy, prepare to run for a second term. But, even if Gül has been encouraged by the recent opinion polls, he will be wary that, if he does decide to stand, he will find it difficult to compete with Erdoğan’s bruising brand of demagoguery on the campaign trail. As a result, he is unlikely to announce his candidacy unless reliable opinion polls suggest he has an unassailable lead.
Although his preference appears to be to remain as president, Gül has indicated his willingness to re-enter politics and run for prime minister in a parliamentary system. In contrast, Erdoğan has repeatedly insisted that this term as prime minister will be his last, meaning that his only options are the presidency or retirement.
Some members of the two men’s entourages still harbor hopes that a compromise can be reached by securing Gül a prestigious international position such as head of the UN or NATO. In practice, neither is a realistic possibility.
In the absence of a compromise, over the months ahead both Erdoğan and Gül can be expected to try to strengthen their own position in the hope that the other will back down. Erdoğan has won each of the three elections he has contested as AKP leader. An intensely proud man, he is unlikely to relish the prospect of his political career ending in defeat.
But, as he has already demonstrated, Gül’s mild manner belies a very stubborn nature. He will not give in easily and will probably initially focus on trying to prevent Erdoğan from introducing a presidential system in a new constitution. Whether or not he will succeed is currently unclear. However, the power struggle between the two men will almost certainly intensify and could begin to inform not only domestic politics but also the conduct of the Turkey’s foreign policy.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.