BACKGROUND: Although the relationship between Erdoğan and Gül has always been characterized as much by competition as cooperation, both are anxious to avoid a public confrontation. Yet there is no indication that the coming impasse can be resolved. As a result, relations between the two men have become increasingly strained. The tensions can be expected to increase over the months ahead, as each tries to position himself for a possible trial of strength, both in the eyes of the electorate and within the AKP and the apparatus of state.
When the AKP was founded in August 2001, Erdoğan was elected as its first chair, and Gül as his deputy. The two had been members of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) and Virtue Party (FP), which had each been banned by the courts, but had rarely worked closely together. Erdoğan’s rise to prominence was based on his four years as mayor of Istanbul from 1994-1998; while Gül’s political career had all been spent in Ankara as a member of the national parliament. Although they were of the same generation (Erdoğan was born in 1954, Gül in 1950) and appeared to share the same ideological commitment, their personalities and public personas were very different. Erdoğan was irascible and abrasive, his Turkish ragged and pugnacious, prone to harangue rather than attempt to persuade, autocratic, parochial and always ready to explode at a perceived slight to his pride. In contrast, Gül came across as calm and controlled, often obdurate but rarely ruffled, his Turkish poised and calculated. Unlike the unilingual Erdoğan, Gül also spoke Arabic and English, which he had honed during his years as a graduate student in the UK.
But, although he was frequently sneered at by Turkey’s educated elite, it was precisely Erdoğan’s emotional rawness which resonated with the AKP’s grassroots support amongst the urban and rural poor; many of whom had difficulty relating to Gül’s apparent polished assurance. Gül was aware that his inability to compete with Erdoğan as a demagogue meant that he could not challenge him for the prime ministry and he spent almost all of the AKP’s first term in power as foreign minister. When, under pressure from the Turkish military, Erdoğan opted not to stand for the presidency when the term of the incumbent, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, ended in May 2007, Gül seized his chance and put himself forward as a candidate. He was inadvertently helped by the clumsy intervention by the then Chief of Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt, who in April 2007 implicitly threatened a coup if Gül persisted with his candidacy. Unlike Erdoğan, Gül refused to back down; and received an unprecedented boost to his popularity amongst the AKP’s grassroots support.
Since he was sworn in as president in August 2007, Gül has facilitated the AKP’s political agenda while simultaneously distancing himself from Erdoğan in the public perception. Unlike Sezer, who frequently used his presidential veto, Gül has approved virtually all of the AKP’s laws and bureaucratic appointments. Yet he has also used the president’s powers and profile to try to build a popular support base in his own right; such as through presenting himself as the initiator, or public face, of conciliation; while avoiding controversy or being held responsible for potentially unpopular concessions on sensitive issues. For example, it was Gül who gave a public face to Turkey’s tentative rapprochement with Armenia when he travelled to Yerevan for a soccer match between the two countries in September 2008. Yet he avoided the recriminations when the rapprochement collapsed after Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu belatedly realized that it risked jeopardizing Turkey’s ties with Azerbaijan. Similarly, in March 2009, it was Gül who was the first to publicly announce an initiative to address the demands of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. But he was not directly involved in the process launched by the AKP government in July 2009. Gül also remained aloof when the AKP attempted to revive the process, which had collapsed in October 2009, a year later by controversially initiating tentative contacts with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); a process which also currently appears to have been suspended.
In recent months, as tensions between the two men have risen, Gül has increasingly begun to position himself for a possible confrontation. In his speech during the opening of parliament on October 1, 2010, Gül sought to seize the moral high ground by implicitly criticizing the lengthy detentions in the politically-charged Ergenekon trial; an investigation which Erdoğan has repeatedly defended. On October 22, 2010, Gül sought to strengthen his powerbase in the apparatus of state by using all four of the presidential appointments to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which is responsible for appointments and disciplinary procedures in the Turkish judicial system, to install people personally loyal to himself.
IMPLICATIONS: The recent increase in tensions between Erdoğan and Gül has been fuelled by the approval of a string of amendments to the existing Turkish constitution on September 12, 2010. The AKP interpreted the wide margin of margin of victory, by 57.9 percent to 42.1 percent, both as an indication of the public’s appetite for constitutional change and as a ringing endorsement of its record in power. It is now confident not only that it will be returned to power in a landslide in June 2011 but will subsequently have a free hand to promulgate a new constitution.
It is currently unclear when Gül’s term as president will end. Under the terms of constitutional amendments approved in September 2007, the president is now to be elected by popular vote for a five-year term and can stand once for re-election. Previously, the president was chosen by parliament and could only remain in office for a single seven-year term. But opinion is divided about whether the new conditions apply to Gül, who was appointed under the old system; and, presumably in order to keep Gül guessing, Erdoğan has rejected calls for clarification on the grounds that there are still two years until the first possible date on which Gül’s term could end, namely August 2012. If the decision is that it is August 2012, then Gül will be able to run for a second term. If it is August 2014, then Erdoğan would have to wait more than three years after the June 2011 election and postpone the introduction of a constitution; neither of which he currently appears prepared to do.
Gül has already made it clear that he has no intention of stepping down, allowing Erdoğan to take over the presidency and then trying to become prime minister; particularly if a new constitution transfers power away from parliament to the presidency.
Gül’s prestige and popularity have undoubtedly been enhanced by his term as president. The president is also known to have the support of the Fethullah Gülen Movement, which is currently the most powerful non-state actor in Turkish politics. Nevertheless, even with the Gülen Movement’s media organizations behind him, it is doubtful whether Gül could compete with Erdoğan on the campaign trail in a presidential election. Perhaps more critically, there is a general agreement within the AKP that, if it came to a straight fight between Erdoğan and Gül, both would suffer damage; perhaps to the extent of splitting the conservative vote and opening the way for a third candidate to be elected president.
In an edition of Foreign Policy magazine on October 20, 2010, Mehmet Kalyoncu, who is generally regarded as being close to the Gülen Movement, proposed that Gül could be appointed UN Secretary General. The incumbent Ban Ki-moon’s first term will expire at the end of 2011, which would fit with Erdoğan’s calendar as it would allow him time to win the June 2011 general election and then promulgate a new constitution in fall 2011. However, if Ban Ki-moon is elected to a second term, Gül would have to wait until 2016. More critically, the AKP appears unaware that its increasingly assertive foreign policy has won Turkey more recognition than affection. Regardless of whether or not Ban Ki-moon stands for a second term, there currently appears no prospect of Gül receiving sufficient international support to become UN Secretary General in either 2011 or 2016.
CONCLUSIONS:Under the prevailing circumstances, it is difficult to see how a major confrontation between Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül can be avoided. Although neither wants it to happen, both are already preparing for it; whether by attempting to manipulate their own, and the other’s, public image through sympathizers in the Turkish media or by using bureaucratic appointments within their respective remits to bolster their powerbases in the apparatus of state.
Although he starts from a position of greater strength, it is Erdoğan who faces the greatest challenges. Even if they are a minority, Gül can still draw on the support of a substantial proportion of the AKP parliamentary party and several members of the government. Indeed, the perception that they are sympathetic to Gül is currently exacerbating Erdoğan’s already strained relations with leading AKP figures such as Economy Minister Ali Babacan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. The tensions are likely to intensify over the months ahead, particularly when Erdoğan begins to draw up the list of the AKP’s candidates for the 2011 elections. The challenge will be to reduce the number of Gül loyalists without creating so much bad feeling that the divisions in the AKP become public; and damage the party’s chances of securing a comfortable majority in June 2011.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. 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".