Gül’s ascendancy to the presidency -- Atatürk’s seat in Çankaya -- remains a difficult pill to swallow for the military and staunch secularists. How it plays will depend on how both Gül and PM [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s soon-to-be-formed new government deal with the inevitable scrutiny by the secular opposition and institutions strongly backed by the military.”
The date was Aug. 28, 2007. Parliament’s election of Gül as president had a profound meaning for the democratization of Turkey. The very same day, the US Embassy in Ankara noted the importance of the event in a cable sent by Janice G. Weiner, the political counselor. That it was titled “All eyes on President Gül” and summarized the huge turmoil preceding the election was telling enough. In an official Turkey transfixed in political symbols to the point of obsession, Gül’s entry into a rather “symbolic” post meant a threshold for defeating the frozen values carried through by “captains of tutelage.”
WikiLeaks cables, published by the Taraf daily, shed a strong light on the event itself. Americans, weary of a relationship built upon a growing mistrust and weaker communications with the military, saw a window of opportunity with the election of Gül. Most of all, it was seen as a turning point for Turkey’s active role in its region.
There was certainly a lot to mention. The day following the election another cable, titled “Risks, challenges, opportunities,” was written and sent by Ross Wilson, then the ambassador in Ankara, who did not conceal his admiration. “One has to blink twice to be sure it really happened,” he wrote and added that it is a “victory for grit and determination.”
A quick look at some excerpts tell us enough of Turkey in 2007 in order to compare it to today: “In hindsight, Gül appears to have maintained his resolve throughout: For much of the general election campaign, Gül was paired with Erdoğan as a star attraction. The undemocratic interruption of the presidential election was an AKP [Justice and Development Party] campaign centerpiece. Gül personified AKP determination to stand up to the Turkish General Staff (TGS) and overcame a concerted military/Republican People’s Party (CHP) assault on democracy and representative political institutions. Despite the old elite’s efforts to define the debate as secularism versus Sharia, Gül (and AKP) successfully framed the issue as one of democracy and stability versus militarism and the past.
“The domestic side will be more of a tightrope as Gül seeks -- in a still contentious atmosphere -- to help normalize Turkey and Turkish life, including on issues like the role and status of religion (Islam, but Christianity as well); Turkey’s diversity and minorities (including Kurds); the role of the military and proper civil-military relations; and the judiciary and judicial reform, which is key to strengthening the rule of law in this country. Any one of these sets of issues is problematic; in combination, they are a big challenge and potentially dangerous for Gül and for Turkey’s future.
“The new president … may also confront judicial challenges, particularly from prickly secularist prosecutors. He will need to re-calibrate his relationship with PM Erdoğan and balance fulfillment of his transformational ambitions for Turkey with the need to avoid a harsh reaction from the secularist street, the military and Kemalist hard-liners who could still bring the reform Turkey project crashing down.
“Gül, Erdoğan and to some extent Turkey as a whole have taken an enormous risk with a Gül presidency. But progress rarely comes without risk. Gül’s rise represents a watershed. The opportunity is in the new president and AKP’s hands to move toward the more equal and tolerant society. Gül’s inaugural remarks called for and toward the final end of the ‘deep state.’ If the reformers succeed, their success will belong to them and the Turkish people. Failure will rest on their shoulders alone.”
So ends Wilson’s “confidential” cable. It is still very valid in its insightful focus on the problematic areas. While Turkey has since 2007 come a long way in consolidating its economy in an unstable world, and pushed through an assertive role in global politics, it was not equally courageous domestically to expand freedoms and rights -- individual and collective -- and it shied away for “fighting intolerance with zero tolerance.”
Hopes are accumulated, once more, on the Parliament to be formed after the June elections. The claim is still there: It must be Gül and Erdoğan, as the “engines of change,” who are expected together to manage a speedier, deeper reform process, no matter what the EU mumbles.