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July 31, 2012, Tuesday

Gül reminds all he is around

Enter Shakespeare. Knocking at the stage door, his question is a kind whisper, “Can two brothers in arms turn into adversaries?” Take it for granted that he knows the answer.

After a long, patient silence, the president of the republic, Abdullah Gül, let his press secretary, Ahmet Sever, speak out. In an interview with the Vatan daily, Sever spoke in detail about the disappointment and sadness Gül felt about the political maneuvering which took place in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the length of his tenure, his eligibility for a second term being questioned by people close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his frustrations on two unresolved issues: Turkey’s Kurds and rapprochement with Armenia.

The president’s message meant that he had decided to break his silence and it was still up to him whether or not he would continue to be part of the shaping of major components of Turkish politics. He felt that he needed to express these views.

So the Shakespearean question is whether or not the historic alliance between Gül and Erdoğan, the two main architects of the AKP story, has entered a new phase where rivalry replaces brotherhood in arms.

Erdoğan is already in an election mood. From his own vantage point he promised to be out of Parliament after three consecutive election periods, so he is eyeing a strengthened presidency with extended executive powers. He sees the process of drafting a new constitution as a grand opportunity to change Turkey’s decades-old political system. In his vision, Turkey ought to be managed under a president with a weak or no prime minister.

But leaving politics and jumping into uncharted waters is not at all easy under the circumstances. The new entry into politics, namely the AKP, 10 plus years old, also needs to be protected, institutionalized. Earlier experiences under two presidents, Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel, have taught Erdoğan that it is easier to climb the pedestal of presidency than keeping the party that paves the way to it intact. Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAVATAN) and Demirel’s True Path Party (DYP) today are history.

Erdoğan’s search, deviation and shift towards the traditional nationalist conservative bloc is to be seen in this context. His election mood will be defined by populism to appeal to those voters, and mergers. His dialogue with the leader of the Voice of the People Party (HAS Party), Numan Kurtulmuş, will most probably lead to an abolishment of the HAS Party and he may continue to dig into the two other minors in that bloc; the Grand Unity Party (BBP) and the Felicity Party (SP).

Gül seems to have been irked by this search, which continues as though he does not exist at all. He was apparently irritated that the two polls which were recently published simply left off his name in the list of possible candidates for the next presidential elections. From his vantage point he was right: It was either the pollsters who “ignored” including his name in the questionnaires or the newspapers which censored it.

The interview not only made clear the disappointment Gül felt because a number of high-ranking AKP officials have lately implied that “he would not stand as a presidential candidate in the 2014 elections.” Gül maintains his traditional silence on the matter, but leaves the door fully open for a candidacy.

Gül, always the smooth operator, a gentle and conscientious soul, should be given the right. He was treated shamelessly, disrespectfully, by being left in political limbo as Parliament dragged its feet in deciding whether or not he would serve five or seven years, until very recently. His virtues and running of the office is clear proof that he deserved none of that.

But his choices, he knows, will help define the path Turkey takes in the decades to come. Whatever he decides will have deep consequences. Will he remain in active politics? As a keen observer of the AKP for years, my hunch would be yes. But in what form, it is hard to say.

Some critics have pointed out that Gül’s move came at an unfortunate time during the troubles in Syria, the Kurdish unrest and all that. But others say that it was timed perfectly to widen the debate before the AKP congress which is due next month. Gül apparently wants to see how he is viewed in the party he co-founded, and how it, as a massive political machine, plans for the future. He may desire to be part of a new negotiation with Erdoğan, to come back to his old “driving engine” position.

He may, in the end, declare his run for the presidency for a second term. And if he does, Erdoğan’s careful calculations of votes and engineering of the percentages will need a revisit. It may even lead to a shelving of the presidential system. It may cause unexpected cleavages within the post-Islamist segment, new alliances vs. old ones. Gül knows he cannot be underestimated as a political player. Given that, Erdoğan would choose not to jeopardize an old friendship and would tell the members of the AKP to treat him with full respect.

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