Will Abdullah Gul challenge Erdogan?
Istanbul - By challenging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with tweets criticising the wording of recently issued emergency decrees, former President Abdullah Gul fired an opening salvo in a verbal duel. It might grow into an open battle between the founders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of presidential elections in 2019.
Gul criticised a decree that states that civilians would not face legal consequences over violent action directed against those attacking Erdogan or his government, which brought warnings of legitimisation of mob rule. Gul, in his usual guarded language, tweeted that the decrees were not only “vague” but “worrisome in terms of understanding of the rule of law” and that they could cause “future developments that would upset all of us.”
His mildly worded disapproval was met with a harsh rebuke from Erdogan, who, without naming Gul, angrily replied that those who complained about the decree were no different from those who opposed the constitutional changes to establish a presidency in April 2017.
AKP hardliners and social media trolls attacked Gul, who, in a rare move, pushed back. “As someone who believes in freedom of thought and expression, one of the founding principles of our party, I will continue to express my opinion on occasions I deem necessary,” Gul said.
Gul has remained largely silent since leaving office in 2014 as Turkey increasingly slips into authoritarian rule under Erdogan, even as rumours about Gul wanting to establish his own party circulated in Ankara. His reappearance in Turkish politics — even though just a couple of tweets — immediately fuelled speculation about a possible candidacy in next year’s presidential elections.
Gul left all such guesses uncommented on but analysts said his move to take to Twitter over the emergency decree was a step up for the former president (2007-14), who has carefully kept criticism of Erdogan to himself. In his Al-Monitor column, Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar announced a budding “war of presidents” and Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-AKP columnist at Hurriyet, read Erdogan’s rebuttal of Gul’s criticism as a “declaration of war.”
It was not the first time that Gul criticised Erdogan and AKP government policies. He did not agree with the Erdogan government regarding Syria and Egypt. He argued for a compromise during the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013 and distanced himself from the project of establishing a presidential system in Turkey. However, the timing of this latest public rebuttal points to a deeper crisis in Turkish politics.
Veteran journalist Rusen Cakir stressed the importance not of Gul’s move but of Erdogan’s reaction to it.
“[The AKP and Erdogan] are very uncomfortable with the idea that Abdullah Gul could appear on the scene. The most important reason for this are the many problems Erdogan faces while moving towards [the election] in 2019. There is a crisis and this crisis is getting deeper but his biggest chance lies with the fact that the opposition does not really challenge him,” Cakir said on his online news channel Medyascope. “That’s why, despite this crisis, despite being a politician and a movement destined to lose, he gives the appearance of being destined to win — because there is nobody else who will win.”
Gul might be a politician who could challenge at least this appearance and Erdogan, despite, or because of, his perceived rival’s continued silence, tried to prompt Gul to join the war of words that he, commanding almost the entirety of Turkish media and a sizeable army of social media trolls, is used to winning.
“Those who were previously under the roof of our party but are no longer with us today have no right to speak about our movement,” he snapped before AKP members on January 9, again without naming Gul.
Unleashing a smear campaign against his soft-spoken opponent could backfire, Cakir warned. Unlike for other former AKP cadres who have fallen from grace, it would be more difficult to stir up broad antipathy towards Gul, especially if he refused to join the fray.
In the opposition, too, many are frustrated about Gul’s hesitation or failure to take an open stance against Erdogan and his policies. While the former president expressed a preference of a parliamentary system in Turkey as opposed to the highly controversial presidential regime Erdogan put to a referendum last April, he never openly sided with the “No” campaign. How, many ask, will he stand up to Erdogan in the race for the position of a legalised autocrat?
Political scientist Sezin Oney underlined in an interview with the opposition daily Evrensel that the anti-Erdogan camp should not expect Gul, a “wholehearted member of the AKP,” to come to their aid. Cakir, too, said reforms could not come from inside the ruling party. “If [Gul] makes a clean break with the AKP and starts to follow a new political perspective, a new vision, maybe then some things will really change.”
Constanze Letsch is a contributor to The Arab Weekly in Istanbul.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.