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Is Erdogan Turkey’s ‘bad cop’ to Gul’s ‘good cop’?


Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-06-05

The recent clashes in Turkey have highlighted the differences between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and President Abdullah Gul (left). But with Erdogan eyeing Gul’s job, what can it mean for Turkey’s political future?

On Monday morning, after a third night of clashes in Turkey’s cities, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked visibly exhausted as he addressed a news conference at Istanbul airport before leaving on a North African tour.

But as he railed against the latest demonstrations, the 59-year-old footballer-turned-politician displayed the legendary vigour, anger and impudence that so endeared him to the Turkish population in the old days.

"This is a protest organised by extremist elements," thundered Erdogan. “The fact that the [ruling] AK Party [AKP] has increased its votes at three elections in a row and has successfully won two referendums, shows how the people of this nation have embraced the party.”

And with that, he was gone – storming out of the country just as he burst out of the 2009 Davos summit after verbally sparring with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

In sharp contrast, Turkish President Abdullah Gul seemed to be reading from a different script – one that appeared to take note of what demonstrators on Istanbul’s Taksim Square and elsewhere were saying over the past few days.

“Democracy is not just about voting,” said Gul just hours after Erdogan’s plane took off for Morocco. “If there are different opinions, different situations, different points of view and dissent, there is nothing more natural than being able to voice those differences."

When journalists in Morocco asked Erdogan about Gul's comments, the Turkish prime minister snapped, "I don't know what the president said, but for me democracy is all about the ballot box."

In style and in discourse, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister and president are very different – even if they hail from the same side of the country's Islamist-secular ideological divide.

Born and raised in the tough Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, Erdogan embodies what Turks call a “Kasimpasa man”: blunt, macho and prickly. Gul, the suave former foreign minister, is a more measured figure who puts both diplomats and foreign correspondents at ease.

As members of the core group that founded the AKP, Erdogan and Gul have been longtime political partners, working collaboratively in the party’s early days to overcome the Turkish secularists’ disquiet over the rise of the moderate Islamist party.

After the AKP’s first electoral victory in November 2002, for instance, Gul briefly held the prime minister’s post since Erdogan was banned from public life. Months later, in March 2003, Gul handed over the premiership to Erdogan after the new AKP government succeeded in overturning the ban.

A decade later, there are growing signs of a rupture between the two politicians – and it appears to be over Gul’s job.

Is Erdogan Putin to Gul's Medvedev

After three consecutive terms as prime minister, leading his party through two re-elections and overseeing massive economic growth, Erdogan is widely believed to be eyeing the presidency.

Following a 2007 constitutional amendment, the upcoming 2014 presidential poll will be Turkey’s first direct presidential election.

“Gul’s relationship with Erdogan is not unlike that between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the one a colourless but canny operator, the other a dogmatic and inflexible strongman, the two of them making up an unequal double act,” noted Charles Turner in a column on the British-based site, Open Democracy.

But while the “colourless” Medvedev was a pliant accomplice to Putin’s presidential plans, there’s little evidence that Gul is willing to be railroaded by his brash prime minister’s ambitions.

A slow, simmering rupture finally erupts

Over the past few years, there have been growing differences between the two men, which became apparent during the 2011 parliamentary elections, according to Ariane Bonzon, a noted French journalist and columnist at Slate France. “With his highly authoritarian style, Erdogan did not hesitate to purge Gul supporters from the AKP list of parliamentary candidates,” said Bonzon.

Another public spat erupted last year, when Erdogan pushed through a law that would in effect prevent Gul from standing for re-election. But months later, Turkey’s Constitutional Court dealt Erdogan a blow, ruling that Gul has a seven-year current term which expires in 2014, when he can run for re-election for a five-year term.

While the official 2014 candidates have not been declared, the jockeying for the historic race has already begun.

But if Erdogan is after Gul’s spot in the Cankaya Presidential Palace, he’s also pushing for a role redefinition.

‘Tayyip istifa’ unites a disparate protest movement

In many ways, Gul is a more qualified candidate – he has more political experience, he speaks fluent English and has had an international education and career. But, as Samim Akgonul, a political scientist at Strasbourg University notes, “on the other hand, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has huge charisma in the AK party and also in public opinion. So, it will be difficult for Abdullah Gul to be the candidate.”

Bonzon however noted that it’s difficult to read the tea leaves on the AKP’s upcoming presidential candidate. “One third of the AKP supports Erdogan, another third supports Gul and one third is undecided,” she estimated.

But over the past few days, the crowds on Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in other Turkish cities seem to have made their decision.

Reporting from Taksim Square on Tuesday, FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer noted that while the recent demonstrations were sparked by a protest to save Istanbul’s Giza Park, the leaderless movement has since drawn in disparate groups.

“In a sense, the protests are led by the cause itself and the cause is encapsulated by the most popular chant you hear people saying, ‘Tayyip istifa, Tayyip istifa’ or Tayyip resign,” said Mortimer.

For the moment, Turkey’s pugnacious prime minister seems unlikely to listen to the protesters’ calls. But that characteristic Erdogan stubbornness and inflexibility might just play in Gul’s favour.

Date created : 2013-06-04


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