Speaking at the opening of the Turkish parliament last week, President Abdullah Gül emphasized that he will “continue to be in the service of our nation.” Some have viewed Gül’s comments as the beginning of a possible political battle between the president and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over power, even if the two Turkish leaders had been erstwhile allies.
Many believe that Gül fired the first shot, when he refused Erdoğan’s proposal to name a third candidate for the presidency in 2007, stressing that the post must remain within the hands of this Erdoğan-Gül partnership. This move resulted in Erdoğan finding himself in an awkward political position, particularly after Gül secured the presidency for himself.
Others, however, are of the view that Erdoğan sparked the conflict by leading a move in 2008 to reduce the presidential term from seven years to five years, in addition to attempting to enact legislation prohibiting the nomination of former and current presidents. Were it not for the last-minute intervention of the Constitutional Court omitting this amendment, Gül would not have been entitled to another presidential term in Ankara’s Çankaya Palace.
No matter how hard they try, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be unable to conceal its leadership’s conflicting stances and positions in handling the numerous problems Turkey is facing, both internally and externally. The biggest challenge facing Turkey today is the wave of protests that engulfed the country last summer, in addition to Ankara’s foreign policy approach towards Syria, Egypt, and even the Gulf.
Even if Gül were to leave the presidential palace in a repeat of the Russian Putin–Medvedev rotation of power, Erdoğan’s dream of an American-style presidential system in Turkey—in which he holds executive and legislative authority—will not come to pass. However, everybody also knows that Erdoğan is a tough political operator who will go down swinging, and so it will not be easy for Gül to dislodge him.
The majority of Turks are aware that it was their prime minister who ordered the amendment of the AKP’s procedural rules, banning the nomination of MPs for a fourth consecutive term in office. However, the Turkish people remain deeply divided by Erdoğan’s latest move: Is this really an attempt to open up the scene to new and young leadership, or is it nothing more than a political maneuver to isolate Gül and his supporters? Was this part of an Erdoğan plan to grant himself the requisite time and space to allow him to become head of state?
Speculation abounds, with some saying that Erdoğan will not wait another two years to make up his mind. What will he do? Will he surprise everyone by announcing early parliamentary elections to besiege his opponents and prevent a recurrence of what happened six years ago, when his path to the presidency was blocked the first time? Perhaps. Others believe that he could make his move during the municipal elections in March 2014, responding to his critics by securing a strong victory.
Erdoğan’s major problem lies in public perceptions of him, with recent polls revealing that Turks view him as a partisan figure determined to hold onto his power, even at the interests of his own party. As for Gül, public opinion views him as a popular candidate who not only enjoys the backing of his own party, but also the political opposition in Turkey. It is this popularity that will allow him to remain in the presidential palace.
What is happening is far more important than a possible leadership clash within the AKP—it could determine the fate of the party as a whole. There is one scenario that analysts both inside and outside Turkey are anticipating, namely Gül–Erdoğan relations deteriorating so badly that it affects the party, with the AKP losing its grip on power. Could Gül and Erdoğan throw away their more than 30-year friendship over politics and power? Only time will tell.