While most Western, Christian countries took a break over the Easter holidays, Turkey experienced another dramatic development. One sentence in a statement President Abdullah Gul made in the midwestern provincial capital of Kutahya hit the national agenda like a bomb. “Under the present conditions, I do not have any plans to get involved in politics,” Gul announced on April 18. The actual meaning of what he said is open to interpretation.
For the many people — including those from large swaths of influential and authorized quarters in the United States and Europe, who view Gul as the most prominent and perhaps last chance for checking Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s seeming unstoppable march toward authoritarianism — his statement came as a disappointment. Unsurprisingly, these unrepentant hopefuls or wishful thinkers tried to dissect every word of Gul's short sentence, asserting that the expected deal between Gul and Erdogan had not yet been concluded and speculating that Gul, through his statement, could be trying to strengthen his hand for the eventual meeting between the two men.
As someone who knows both men (Gul quite well) and as someone who has been observing Turkey’s political games for decades, I wasn’t much baffled when I read Gul’s statement. When The Wall Street Journal and Reuters had called me for an opinion shortly before Gul’s statement, I had said with a degree of comfort that Gul is not likely to favor the idea of serving as prime minister under an Erdogan presidency, and thus we should not expect Gul to enter into the race to become the chairman of the post-Erdogan Justice and Development Party (AKP). Does this therefore signal that Gul is forgoing a struggle with Erdogan? Yes, definitely, in capital letters. Does that also preclude some sort of “Putin-Medvedev swap” on which many have lately speculated and see, especially in Western circles, as the least worse-case scenario for Turkey? In bigger and bolder black capital letters, yes!
Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin most resembles Erdogan in Turkey's neighborhood, one thing is for certain. There is no similarity whatsoever between Gul and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. With his latest statement, Gul drove the last nail into the coffin of the Putin-Medvedev model. The timing of Gul’s dramatic statement is interesting in this regard.
Erdogan had polled the AKP parliamentary group on April 17 and found that the overwhelming majority of his party's parliamentarians wanted him as president. Erdogan had already averred what kind of a president he would like to be. It would include chairing Council of Ministers meetings and full utilization of the “presidential powers” developed for Gen. Kenan Evren as “head of state of the military regime” after the 1980 military coup. It is also known that Erdogan wants to separate the party chairmanship from the post of prime minister and that for the party chairman he would prefer Numan Kurtulmus, who is now a deputy chairman of the party.
Gul made his statement one day after Erdogan’s poll. That meant that “under the present conditions,” Gul’s acceptance of the premiership would resemble the French style of governance, but it would also mean agreeing to be a no-name, weakling prime minister under a head of state even stronger than Russia’s Putin. He would have to bow before Erdogan and ask for his blessing in appointing him prime minister.
We can thus say that Gul has refused to submit to Erdogan and has gracefully accepted that under the current circumstances, the party he co-founded with Erdogan is no longer with him. He, therefore, has abdicated. If, however, the “present conditions” change, then maybe Gul’s decision will also change. At this juncture, this is not the likeliest scenario.
Erdogan’s loyal attack squads in the media have already begun to heap venom on Gul. The president now seems to be the target of an increasingly hostile campaign by pro-Erdogan media outlets. In one instance, Gul was praised for the wisdom of his decision, which was hailed by one commentator as a move to avoid political sedition, or fitna. Mustafa Karaalioglu, the editor-in-chief of the daily Star and one of the people in Turkish media closest to Erdogan, wrote on April 21:
President Gul closed the door to political sedition. This was a move befitting the quality, style and attitude of Gul. By doing so, he did not diminish his political value. To the contrary, he improved his standing. Today, the spirit of the times makes an Erdogan-based politics more inevitable than ever. He will have many responsibilities, and Erdogan knows that. That is why he is openly defining the presidency, for which he is the strongest potential candidate, as an office of the executive president. Since he cannot use the presidential palace at Cankaya as an opportunity to shirk responsibilities, he had no other choice except to redesign that office to handle those responsibilities. From what we understand from Gul’s statement, he too has analyzed and prefers this new design.
Tarhan Erdem, in his Radikal column on the same day, presented a totally different perspective. Erdem’s comments are noteworthy because he has the reputation of having made the most accurate election predictions in recent years. His polling company, KONDA, has produced amazingly accurate election estimates. He is one of those who hopes that an Erdogan-Gul meeting might still keep Gul on stage as a check and balance against Erdogan. This is what he wrote:
Erdogan’s candidacy for presidency will be the beginning of many mistakes and irreparable damage to the country. His candidacy will mean finally admitting his goal of consolidating the prime ministry, AK Party chairmanship and presidency all in one. What Erdogan has been saying in the last few days are examples of his disinterest [in the consequences]. Turkey is not a country primitive enough for such an experience. Our people will not bow to the consolidation of three functions. Those seeking anti-constitutional power grabs and those allowing it to happen will be embarrassed. First of all, Erdogan will have problems finding people desperate and spineless enough to agree to sit in the prime ministry and ministerial seats. People will block this snatch of power. If they can’t do it now, they will severely punish it in spring of 2015 or immediately afterward.
I agree with this assessment of the negatives of an Erdogan’s presidency for Turkey, but it does not change the fact that Gul does not have the stamina to counter Erdogan and is readying himself for retirement. At least “under the present conditions.”