Turkey's former President Abdullah Gul announced April 28 that he will not run in the June 24 elections. Al-Monitor previously covered reports that Erdogan’s adviser and Turkey’s military chief of staff arrived in Gul’s backyard in a helicopter to deter him from announcing his candidacy. In his 10-minute press conference, during which he did not bother to answer questions from journalists, Gul made it clear that the candidacy idea was not his own and that he was approached by opposition groups, particularly the tiny Saadet (Felicity) Party. His speech focused on his credentials as a founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his resentment toward his former party. His was not the voice of a determined challenger but rather that of a bitter AKP insider. Regardless, the speech put an end to speculation dating back to June 2013 about Gul’s potential to oppose Erdogan.
Although Gul had not spoken about his own candidacy, prominent Turkish media figures had asked the entire opposition to rally around him. They argued that Gul is the only one who could go up against Erdogan. For example, one piece warned those who resist “the Gul formula” that they will bear the burden of not supporting the person favored by the polls. They argued that Gul would come with an A-level team, all former AKP bigwigs such as former Economy Minister Ali Babacan, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and even former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Yet none of them dared to publicly take a stand against Erdogan or the current government. Despite his name recognition and international reputation and the domestic hype from prominent liberal opposition figures, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Iyi (Good) Party base never warmed up to Gul. Indeed, during these past two weeks, the social media accounts and mailboxes of several lawmakers were bombarded with anti-Gul messages.
If Gul really was the strongest candidate against Erdogan, why would the anti-Erdogan camp oppose him? Given that the AKP was so adamantly against a potential Gul candidacy, shouldn't the opposition have rallied around the last best hope to beat Erdogan’s one-man rule? Why would they send messages to their parliamentarians and party leaders warning them not to even dream about nominating Gul as a joint candidate? How can the same man be seen as the only hope by a section of the opposition while the others declare him persona non grata?
After analyzing the public’s open and back channel reactions and talking to opposition figures as they tried to swallow the bitter pill, Al-Monitor presents three crucial reasons the opposition didn’t want Gul as a joint candidate, why the anti-AKP sectors cannot unite behind the allegedly strongest candidate even as they race against time.
First, Gul was seen as still and forever under the AKP’s fist. The anti-Gul camp felt vindicated listening to his “I will not run” speech, which emphasized his loyalty to the AKP multiple times. However, even before this speech, Gul was never seen by a majority of the public as anti-AKP because he never openly and clearly criticized the AKP’s or Erdogan’s controversial actions. To the contrary, during his presidency, Gul worked in sync with Erdogan, enabling him to remove safeguards of democracy one by one. Although soft-spoken and Western-educated with foreign policy expertise, there is not a shred of evidence to indicate Gul could challenge Erdogan.
Indeed, for the anti-Gul camp, the bitter memories of 2014's joint presidential candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who proved to be an utter fiasco for the CHP, are still fresh. The CHP formed an alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and asked its base to rally around Ihsanoglu, who was an Islamist with an impressive international reputation. Ihsanoglu received 38% of the vote and failed to promote any solid criticism against Erdogan. To add insult to injury, in April 2018, as a lawmaker from the ultranationalist MHP, which is now in alliance with the AKP, Ihsanoglu announced his support for Erdogan’s presidential bid. In Turkish politics, joint candidates cannot guarantee the collective votes of their respective parties. The anti-Gul campaign was convinced not to repeat the Ihsanoglu mistake, in which a right-wing candidate runs a soulless campaign only to finally kiss Erdogan’s ring.
The second reason is Gul’s political personality. While Gul was able to win acceptance, if not support, from well-educated Turkish elites from the left and the right, the masses never felt strongly about him. Gul has not been an approachable or charismatic leader who could rally crowds. Although the Islamist Saadet Party was the driving force behind Gul’s candidacy and the idea was for Gul to attract alienated Islamists, conservatives and Kurds, there has been no sign of support for Gul from conservative segments of society. To the contrary, several advisers of the AKP’s top names have been tainted by endless investigations and allegations of membership in the movement of Fethullah Gulen. Particularly since the coup attempt, Islamist groups have not spoken in support of alienated AKP leaders as they face social media attacks by AKP loyalists.
Baris Yarkadas, a prominent CHP lawmaker, told reporters, “If you see Gul’s former advisers released from prison in the coming days, do not be surprised,” highlighting the hold the AKP still has over its old guard.
Some have interpreted Gul’s potential candidacy as Gulen’s idea, and the alliance between the CHP, Saadet and Iyi as a toxic cocktail. The images of Gul and other discarded AKP elites have fast deteriorated after they fell out of favor with Erdogan.
The last reason is the sentiment that Gul’s candidacy did not indicate hope for change but rather hopelessness and desperation. Rather than generating enthusiasm and solidarity among opposition groups, Gul only highlighted their bitterness and division.
One adviser to a CHP lawmaker told Al-Monitor, “We sat at the table for three hours reading through messages from our constituents about Gul. I felt sick to my stomach because one after another they were telling us, ‘Let’s just stick with Erdogan, why bother?’ The potential of Gul as a joint candidate or another former AKP guy emerging as the face of the anti-Erdogan camp is a depressing picture. Under the current distribution, the opposition calculates that 60-65% of the Turkish public is right-leaning. It is a good idea to present a candidate who has the ability to steal votes from the AKP’s base, but the current state of Turkish politics does not allow for this linear logic to apply. Rather, a conservative, radical, right-wing candidate alienates those who have had enough abuses of values and morality under the banner of Islam."
A longtime CHP voter told Al-Monitor, “Even [AKP members’] own kids are opting for deism; why would [CHP head Kemal] Kilicdaroglu force us to vote for another Islamist?” As most leftist voters are alienated, they will not turn out to vote, making Erdogan’s victory easier.
Still, the idea of Gul’s joint candidacy has generated strong opposition from both AKP loyalists and anti-Erdoganists. Both of these groups have shown signs of relief upon Gul’s announcement of non-candidacy. But Gul's abortive candidacy has revealed once more how disorganized and vulnerable the opposition groups are and gave Erdogan yet another opportunity to flex his muscles and present himself as the only hope to keep Turkey stable.