Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters Gul and Erdogan at a ceremony to mark Republic Day, October 29, 2013.

Man in the Middle

Why Abdullah Gul Will Disappoint the West

Many observers, both in Turkey and abroad, believe that this is Turkish President Abdullah Gul's moment to shine. In recent months, Turkey's democracy has careened wildly off its democratic path, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures -- including a ban on access to Twitter and YouTube -- to suppress what he believes is an existential threat posed by his onetime ally Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish cleric who has followers in positions of influence throughout the government. Erdogan seems intent on trying to excise Gulenists from Turkish society entirely. Erdogan's paranoia has also moved the AKP toward becoming an authoritarian cult of personality.

This is where many Turks, Europeans, and Americans have hoped that Gul would step in to steer Turkey back onto a democratic course. In mid-February, Gunay Hilal Aygun, a columnist for the Gulen-affiliated Today’s Zaman, asked, “Will President Gul let the Turkish people down?” The Financial Times picked up on this theme a few weeks later when the editorial board called on Gul “to take a stand” against Erdogan. What these observers seem to want is for Gul to come down from the apolitical confines of his presidential office and directly challenge Erdogan for leadership of the AKP, with a promise of restoring the party's original coalition, which included pious Muslims of all stripes, Kurds, secular liberals, and the business elite. These hopes aren't entirely fanciful, but they are far too optimistic. In fact, they have fundamentally missed Gul's broader reading of Turkish politics. 

Gul has carefully cultivated his reputation as a moral voice in Turkey's transition to democracy, and in recent months he has not shied from expressing his displeasure with Erdogan's style of leadership. In response to the government’s ban on Twitter after Erdogan vowed to “eradicate” the service, Gul tweeted, “The wholesale shuttering of social media platforms cannot be approved. I hope this practice will not last long.” Months earlier, at the opening session of the Grand National Assembly, Gul distanced himself from the prime minister's increasing authoritarianism, declaring, “I have always acted with the awareness that democracy requires tolerance, patience, perseverance and sacrifice. I was also mindful of the fact that democracy is a system of checks and balances.” And in responding to last spring's Gezi Park protests, Gul’s diplomatic manner and vocal support for peaceful dialogue with protesters contrasted starkly with Erdogan’s thuggish defiance. 

All of this is consistent with Gul's demeanor in meetings with journalists and private interlocutors, where he has offered implicit but unmistakable critiques of the prime minister. He has also hinted that he might return to politics sometime in the future, raising speculation that he would challenge Erdogan. The fact that the president has not been caught up in the ongoing corruption scandal that has enveloped Erdogan and the AKP since last December has only intensified speculation about Gul’s political plans.

But for all of his appealing attributes, Gul has consistently stopped short of taking action. Rather than use the powers of his office to thwart Erdogan’s worst instincts, Gul has done the opposite. Since last June, he has signed into law a slew of restrictive measures supported by Erdogan and passed by the AKP-dominated Grand National Assembly. These new laws range from restricting the Internet to making administering first aid a criminal offense under certain circumstances, to prevent good Samaritans from giving aid to protesters. Gul has also signed into law a measure that strips the independent Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors of its power to make any judicial appointments and transferred that authority to political appointees at the Ministry of Justice. 

Gul's aides have tried to paint his actions as attempts to make the best of a bad situation. For example, Gul approved the Internet access bill but included the proviso that the parts of the legislation that most egregiously violated international norms be revised. Yet Gul's more idealistic supporters were stunned that he would give his assent at all. They couldn't understand how the man whom they believed clearly disapproved of Erdogan's authoritarianism had been so willing to act as his accomplice. 

But Gul's behavior should not come as such a surprise. It is the product of his understanding of Turkey's present political situation and his own broader political goals. The fact that Gul has failed to challenge Erdogan doesn't mean there aren't differences between the two men. There is no reason to doubt that Gul is sincere when he expresses democratic ideals. But for the present moment, at least, Gul believes that it is necessary to subordinate his ideals for the sake of maintaining the stability and strength of the AKP.

As Turkey's president, Gul is legally not permitted to have a political affiliation, and he has done his best to stay above day-to-day politics. But his past as a political operator can’t be denied. Gul -- along with Erdogan and a number of others -- is a founder of the AKP. As they built the party in 2001 and 2002 they looked to dysfunctional coalition governments of the 1990s, which were composed of various small parties with limited appeal, as a cautionary example. They observed how personal rivalries pushed the previously venerable Motherland and True Path parties into oblivion. Gul and his partners wanted their AKP to rise above all that and to be able to capture a broad share of the public. Just 14 months after founding the AKP, the new party garnered 36 percent of the vote in national elections. The rest is history.

Whatever his other political beliefs, Gul believes that the AKP remains the only vehicle for Turkey’s transformation (and for his own personal ambition). In that sense, anything that Gul does to fracture the AKP would be devastating to his own lifelong political project. Even if he knows that the AKP has lapsed from its reformist origins, Gul likely believes that its disintegration would be worse, since it would return Turkey to the destabilized politics of the recent past.

And Gul would not be wrong to think so. If he directly challenged Erdogan, he would surely receive praise from Turkey watchers in Europe and the United States. But that would hardly compensate for the bruising political battle he would have initiated with Erdogan. For all of the discussions about fissures developing within the party since the Gezi Park protests and a few resignations after the corruption scandal broke, the AKP has remained remarkably cohesive and loyal to Erdogan. Most of the party’s parliamentarians owe their position to the patronage of the prime minister, and Erdogan remains wildly popular among the AKP supporters in the public. Gul has loyalists of his own in the party, of course, but the apolitical nature of the presidency has constrained him from broadening his base within the AKP.

And Gul has surely noticed, during this extended season of Turkish political tumult, that Erdogan has proved to be a fearless combatant. The Gulenists within the police, judiciary, and state prosecutors’ office have thrown virtually everything at him, and the prime minister has only responded in kind. Erdogan’s call for a ban on Twitter and YouTube reflects his willingness to do Turkey harm in pursuit of trying to save himself.

Erdogan's evident lack of judiciousness is the reason that outsiders believe Gul should assert himself; from Gul's perspective, it also the reason he should refrain from doing so. A civil war between pro-Erdogan and pro-Gul factions of the AKP would only serve to benefit their common political enemies, the Kemalists. When Kemalism was the dominant ideology in Turkey, pious Turks like Gul and Erdogan were subjected to routine repression. The rise of the AKP has mostly reduced Kemalism to a hollow ideology, something to which many Turks only pay lip service as they go about their business. But Kemalist forces still exist in Turkey throughout the judiciary, the bureaucracy, academia, big business, and the military. To the extent that a fight with Erdogan would provide an opportunity for Kemalists to return to the fore of national politics, Gul will avoid taking on his old ally.

The president is likely better off avoiding a direct confrontation with Erdogan, signaling his disapproval for the prime minister’s excesses, and hoping that the electoral process provides an opportunity for Turks to alter their country’s current nondemocratic trajectory. The key word is “hope.” Although Erdogan has given up the idea of becoming president under a new constitution that would have granted the presidency broader and more direct political powers, AKP lieutenants have openly floated the idea of changing party bylaws to allow him to serve additional terms in his current office. If that happens, which seems likely, Gul will remain under Erdogan’s shadow. Perhaps Gul is planning to bide his time until Erdogan thoroughly discredits himself with his supporters. But, in that case, he may be waiting a long time. All of Erdogan’s excessive actions to date -- banning Twitter and YouTube, attacking civil society organizations, intimidating the press, and making accusations about foreign plots aimed at bringing Turkey to its knees -- have played well with his constituency. 

It is hard not to sympathize with Gul. He is the voice of reason -- or at least portrays himself that way -- in a political environment where so many seem to have taken leave of their senses. But he also believes he has no good options available to him. By wading into the AKP morass, he thinks he would ultimately only be doing damage to himself, his party, and Turkey as a whole. Those who are desperately waiting for Gul to make a move will most likely remain disappointed. He will remain outside the battle -- torn between his political ideals and his calculations of political interest.

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