Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Ankara power struggle

While Erdogan appears intent on remaining in power until 2029, former friends might not let him, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Ankara power struggle
Ankara power struggle

اقرأ باللغة العربية

For many months, if not more, they would only be bought together by formal occasions — funerals for public figures, for example. In spite of the solemnity of the occasion, there seemed to be something else that hinted at a coolness between the two of them, something that made them, should their eyes happen to meet, avert their gazes. As time passed, the tensions between the two began to surface into public view as one side levelled sober, judiciously worded criticisms that struck to the core while the other inveighed. 

This is where former Turkish president Abdullah Gul and current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, long terms companions on the political road in Turkey, stand at present. The two had rebelled against the godfather of Turkish Islamism, Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of a number of Islamist oriented parties, and cofounded their own party, the now ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This party came into power soon after the turn of the millennium. Through this vehicle, Erdogan became prime minister and eventually president, in which post he plans to remain until 2029. Some have suggested that he will find ways to remain in his throne beyond that, becoming, as some put it, the “Robert Mugabe of Europe”.

Gul is a person of a different order. He did not have to leave the presidency in 2014. He could have run for a second term. The Constitutional Court issued a clear ruling on that after the amendment that made it possible for the president to be elected by direct popular vote instead of by parliament. However, Gul was not inspired by the thirst for power and he knew his friend. He opted for decency and peace of mind — for a while.

He could have remained that way, a kind of recluse, a respected academic and a revered former statesman who would pop up from time to time to issue pithy comments on issues of current concern and then disappear again. However, it appears that Turkey’s deteriorating situation at home and tattered reputation abroad made that impossible for him. 

The former president’s re-emergence began in the form of Tweets. His remarks were initially couched in the form of advice in the hope that this would jerk his AKP colleague and his successor to the presidency to his senses. When subtlety failed, his criticisms became more direct, and more and more he would make televised appearances, expressing grave reservations on the country’s foreign policies or, worse, condemning the dangerous decline of civil liberties and mounting abuses of human rights, and urging the release of jailed journalists and the return to democracy and the rule of law. At the same time, he was careful to avoid being dragged into futile bickering and name-calling, driving home another contrast between him, as calm and restrained elder statesman, and his glowering hot-headed successor. 

In short, it appears that former president Abdullah Gul is planning to make a political comeback, not as a challenger to Erdogan in the next presidential elections scheduled for November 2019 (although some observers have not ruled out this possibility) but rather as a main supporter of a challenger. 

Observers draw attention to Gul’s other movements: flurries of communications with officials in European capitals and with Arab leaders. It is noteworthy that his recent visit to Saudi Arabia where he met with King Salman went unmentioned by the pro-Erdogan media machine. There were reports, not denied by Gul’s office, that the former president made a point, in that meeting, of expressing his reservations on Ankara’s stance on the Gulf dispute and expressed his personal support for the demands of the four countries that had declared an embargo against Qatar.

In his office back home, he has pointedly received visits from Western political figures known to be opposed to Erdogan, as well as opposition figures opposed to the policies of the ruling AKP government.

This seems remarkable coming from an AKP cofounder. But it is well known that there is a smouldering conflict in AKP corridors between two basic camps, Erdogan loyalists and the others who feel he should not be allowed to remain in power. Against this backdrop, one’s attention could not help but to be caught by Ahmet Takan’s column with the title “Abdullah Gul’s ‘Macron’ project”, which appeared in the Yenicag newspaper of 11 January 2017. Ahmet Takan is a former Gul adviser. He writes: “Good sources from [Gul’s] office maintain that ‘Abdullah Bey is consciously sounding out all reactions. He is grooming Ali Babacan as a presidential candidate.’” Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister and another cofounder of the AKP, has been sidelined for the past few years. According to Takan’s sources, another AKP cofounder, Cuneyd Zapsu, former PM Ahmet Davutoglu and Haci Bayram, another prominent AKP member, figure in the picture. 

The plan appears to be as follows: to deliver a message to Erdogan telling him to step aside and let Babacan run as the AKP presidential candidate so as to preserve the party’s unity. If not, the Gul camp would field Babacan as the candidate of a new party, meaning a schism in the AKP. At that point, the gloves will be off. 

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