Will Abdullah Gul challenge Erdogan?

Gul’s move to take to Twitter over the emergency decree was a step up for the former president.

Verbal duel. A file picture shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) talking with former President Abdullah Gul in Istanbul. (AFP)

2018/01/14 Issue: 139 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Constanze Letsch

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.

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