October 6, 2013 1:59 pm

Erdogan and Gul to determine Turkey’s future direction

Abdullah Gul, president (right) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister©Getty

Abdullah Gul, president (right) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister

Early next year two veteran party comrades in Turkey will sit down to decide on the most powerful offices in the land. Their decision will determine the future direction of the country.

One of the two men involved is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated the political landscape for the past decade as prime minister. He has vowed not to serve another term, eyeing the presidency instead.

Asked in a television interview late last week about a possible job swap with Abdullah Gul, holder of the largely ceremonial presidential post, Mr Erdogan first said no decision had been made. He then acknowledged he would consult Mr Gul on the issue, adding that the president had a political future within the ruling, Islamist-rooted AK party.

“The party is equally important to me and to Gul; he is one of the founders,” Mr Erdogan said. “I do not believe there will be a parting of the ways.”

Mr Gul’s supporters suggest he is raring to return to executive office and that a final decision is likely to come after local elections in March. The first direct presidential election in the country’s history is scheduled for the summer.

Highlighting what is at stake, Mr Gul set out what amounted to a proposed change of course from the prime minister’s rule in a speech at the opening of parliament last week.

Whereas Mr Erdogan has denounced this year’s protesters in Istanbul as terrorists and looters, Mr Gul criticised the politics of polarisation as a threat to democracy. While Mr Erdogan attacks an ill-defined “interest rate lobby” as the author of Turkey’s economic ills and has inveighed against the Koc group, the country’s biggest company, Mr Gul called for an “environment that will make both foreign investors and our own entrepreneurs feel safe”. He also called for dialogue with Egypt’s new military government in spite of Turkey’s support for the ousted, democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government.

Even opposition party figures say Mr Gul would take the country in a different direction.

“There is certainly a difference between the two leaders and this corresponds to the difference between an authoritarian majoritarian and a conservative democrat,” said Aykan Erdemir, a member of parliament for the Republican People’s party, Turkey’s biggest opposition party.

The question is whether Mr Erdogan would willingly leave the executive to such an independent figure. Mr Erdemir said Mr Erdogan had been weakened by this year’s Gezi protests in terms of popular legitimacy, despite the government crackdown on the demonstrations. Mr Gul’s supporters argue that a less dominant Mr Erdogan cannot afford to push Mr Gul aside.

“Gul is always seen as friendly, not competitive like Erdogan, but he is proving to be a much better infighter than people thought,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in the US. “He is very carefully setting the stage and there is a group of people who have positioned themselves with the hope that he becomes prime minister.”

As a directly elected president, Mr Erdogan would have a popular mandate unparalleled in Turkish history. He could also activate dormant powers of the presidency, such as summoning cabinet meetings.

But while Mr Erdogan has sought to change the constitution to create an executive style presidency that would allow him to remain firmly in charge, Mr Gul pointedly noted in an interview in Foreign Affairs last month that such an idea was off the agenda and had failed to win consensus support.

Still, Mr Gul’s backers echo Mr Erdogan’s insistence that no decision has been made about their political futures. Faced with a less powerful presidency than he wants and the need to garner over 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a second round run-off, Mr Erdogan might yet rethink his promise not to serve another term as prime minister.

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