BACKGROUND: Gül (born 1950) and Erdoğan (born 1954) come from the same generation. Both were members of Islamist student organizations in their youth. However, while Erdoğan remained politically active, Gül opted for an academic career. After completing his doctorate, Gül worked at the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia from 1983 to 1991. Shortly after his return to Turkey, a meeting with Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP), resulted in Gül successfully standing for parliament on the RP ticket in the October 1991 general election. But Gül was never very close to Erbakan. Meanwhile, the combination of his prolonged absence from Turkey and the abruptness with which he entered politics meant that Gül also lacked his own powerbase in the form of the network of contacts and alliances that underpin most Turkish politicians’ careers.
In contrast, Erdoğan built his political career from the bottom up. By the time he was elected as the RP mayor of Istanbul in March 2004, Erdoğan had already spent twenty years working his way up through the Islamist Movement. As a result, although Erdoğan entered parliament over twelve years later in March 2003, his personal powerbase was not only much broader than Gül’s but also considerably deeper. In addition, during his during his time in Istanbul, Erdoğan regularly attended meetings of the İskenderpaşa lodge of the Naqshbandi religious order, enabling him to add another layer to his network of contacts.
Even in 2007, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) nominated him for the presidency, Gül still had only a limited following amongst the party’s supporters. He was generally well-regarded internationally. But the same characteristics that made Gül popular with foreign diplomats and journalists – such as his softly spoken demeanour and measured, impeccable English – alienated him from the AKP’s grassroots, making him appear aloof and etiolated. The overwhelming majority of the AKP’s grassroots found it easier to identify with Erdoğan’s raw emotionalism and streetwise pugnacity.
However, in recent years, public support for Gül has grown. For previously skeptical AKP voters, Gül’s controlled calmness has become an asset since he assumed the presidency, making him appear dignified and statesmanlike – an image that has been strengthened by the carefully chosen infrequency of his comments on current events and his calls for conciliation rather than confrontation. For similar reasons, Gül is generally well-regarded even by non-AKP voters, including the secularist middle classes who feel under assault from Erdoğan’s increasingly invasive attempts to reshape Turkish society in line with his personal religious beliefs.
In addition, although he has never been an active member, Gül has always enjoyed good relations with the Gülen Movement. Not surprisingly, the Gülen Movement’s support for Gül has increased and become more explicit as its relations with Erdoğan have deteriorated.
However, compared with the devotion of Erdoğan’s hardcore followers, support for Gül remains relatively shallow. It is also largely dependent on Gül being able to continue to differentiate himself from Erdoğan.
Although he has yet to publicly announce his candidacy, Erdoğan is known to be planning to stand in the presidential elections which are due to be held in summer 2014, probably early August. Opinion polls currently suggest that, in a straight race between the two, Gül would probably emerge the winner. However, the situation could rapidly change once they had both announced their candidacies. Erdoğan would tour the country, setting the tone by excoriating Gül at the mass rallies that still dominate Turkish election campaigns. Gül would be unable to respond in kind. Even if Gül eventually prevailed, his public image would be severely – and probably permanently – tarnished by Erdoğan’s vituperative rhetoric.
Instead, Gül appears likely to step aside. Rather than seeking a second term as president, Gül is believed to be planning to return to active politics, preferably as prime minister at the head of an AKP government. Under the Turkish Constitution, the president cannot be a member of a parliamentary party. Consequently, if Erdoğan wins the presidential election, he will have to resign his membership of the AKP. This would leave the way open for Gül to rejoin the AKP and be elected party leader.
The Turkish Constitution also stipulates that the prime minister must be a member of parliament. There is no system of by-elections. If a seat in parliament becomes vacant, it remains so until the next general election. The only exception is if ten per cent of the 550 seats in parliament become vacant, in which case an early general election is automotically called. However, under the prevailing circumstances, even if Gül was able to rejoin the AKP and be elected party leader, he would still have to wait until the next general election – which is currently scheduled for June 2015 – before he could re-enter parliament.
IMPLICATIONS: The presidency has limited executive powers. Erdoğan is currently hoping that, once elected, he will still be able to effectively govern Turkey by ensuring that a subservient loyalist succeeds him as AKP leader and prime minister. He has made it clear that he will resist any attempt by Gül to take over the leadership of the AKP. Whether or not he is strong enough to do so will largely depend on the result of the local elections on 30 March 2014.
Opinion polls in Turkey are notoriously unreliable. However, although local factors can play a role, Turks tend to vote in local elections according to their perceptions of a party’s performance in national politics as a whole. As a result, the forthcoming local elections are expected to serve as an indication of the level of popular support for the AKP and – given his domination of the party – Erdoğan himself.
There are already some AKP parliamentary deputies who are privately uneasy about Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic authoritarianism. But they are reluctant to challenge him publicly unless they are sure that he is weakened – particularly after seeing the ruthlessness with which Erdoğan is continuing to purge the police and judiciary of suspected Gülen sympathizers.
In addition, Erdoğan has refused to consider amending the clause in the AKP’s internal statutes that forbids a party member from holding the same public office for more than three terms in succession. As a result, around 60-65 AKP deputies who would otherwise seek to run again are now faced with the prospect of having to stand down at the next general election. Gül’s advisers have privately let them know that he would abolish the restriction if he became AKP leader. But these disgruntled deputies are also awaiting the local election results before deciding what to do.
At the last local elections in March 2009, the AKP took 39 per cent of the popular vote. If the party wins over 40 per cent in March 2014 and retains control of Istanbul and Ankara, Erdoğan’s position will be strengthened and he will push ahead with his plans to run for president. A good result in the local elections would also mean that Erdoğan’s prestige – and thus his informal authority – would be such that few in the AKP would dare to defy an order from him.
In such a situation, Gül’s chances of being elected leader of the AKP would be considerably reduced. One alternative would be for Gül to try to form a new political party. However, this would represent a considerable financial and organizational challenge, particularly as Gül lacks a nationwide network of his own. Before the power struggle between and the Gülen Movement became public in December 2013, it might have been possible for Gül to draw on the movement’s financial resources and social networks. But its aggressive campaign against Erdoğan has also publicized some of the movement’s more sinister activities, such as its establishment of an organized presence in the police and judiciary and its widespread use of illegal wiretaps.
Although many non-AKP voters would support Gül against Erdoğan, they would not vote for a party led by him in a general election. In itself, the Gülen Movement is too small to constitute an electoral base. Any new party founded by Gül would have to primarily target AKP voters, a large proportion of whom have been deeply alienated by the Gülen Movement’s campaign against Erdoğan. As a result, rather than being an asset, Gül’s reputation for having good relations with the Gülen Movement would be a liability. Under the current circumstances, rejoining the AKP probably represents Gül’s only possibility of becoming prime minister.
If the AKP vote falls below 40 per cent – and if it loses Istanbul or Ankara – Erdoğan will be weakened and Gül’s chances of returning to the AKP and taking over the leadership will increase. But there would still need to be a transitional period in which someone else served as prime minister until a general election could be held to enable Gül to enter parliament.
CONCLUSIONS: The political turmoil triggered by the corruption investigations against members of Erdoğan’s inner circle that was launched on December 17, 2013, shows no sign of abating. Both the turmoil itself and Erdoğan’s draconian response – including bureaucratic purges, political interference in judicial processes and restrictions on freedom of expression – have led to calls for Gül to intervene to uphold democratic principles and the rule of law. Most of the calls have come from the Gülen Movement and non-AKP voters, such as secularists. The current situation is arguably the greatest test of Gül’s presidency – and it is one he is in danger of failing. If continues to prevaricate, he risks not only alienating the Gülen Movement and those non-AKP voters who were previously sympathetic to him, but also appearing weak and indecisive.
Yet an intervention could also cost Gül his chance of returning to active politics as prime minister. It is even possible that a poor result for the AKP in the local elections could be more damaging than one in which the party did well. In the latter case, even if Erdoğan was strengthened in the short-term, Gül would still be able to bide his time and wait for an opportunity. However, if Gül intervenes now – such as by criticizing Erdoğan – and the AKP subsequenlty performs badly in the local elections, there is a strong possibility that party supporters will hold Gül responsible., More dangerously, Gül would be vulnerable to accusations that – in order to further his personal ambitions – he had damaged the party that he had helped to establish in 2001; and his hopes of leading the AKP would suffer a serious, probably fatal, blow.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.