No room for Gul in the AK Party by Murat Aksoy

After the March 30 municipal elections, Turkey started preparing for the second stage of elections, the presidential election slated for Aug. 10, 2014.

As of today, none of the opposition parties have announced a presidential candidate. In addition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul has also been mentioned as a prospective presidential candidate for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Erdogan wants to be first president under new presidential system

It has been voiced for a long time and has now become almost certain that the AK Party’s presidential nominee will be Prime Minister Erdogan. The fact that the AK Party secured more than 40 percent of the popular vote in the municipal elections has made Erdogan’s goal of becoming the first president elected by popular vote possible. Indeed, organizational surveys (kind of like US primaries) show that Erdogan is in the lead.

The biggest question that will arise if Erdogan decides to run for president is what will happen to President Gul’s political future. In fact, the AK Party has an answer to this question, but they have refrained from voicing it.

Many people think that President Gul will become prime minister if Erdogan is elected president. Gul may have thought the same thing. But is it possible?

Now, we already know that Erdogan wants to become president. However, he will fully exercise all his constitutional powers and act both as prime minister and president if is elected. He will introduce a de facto semi-presidential system.

New AK Party management a bit cool to Gul

Moreover, the aim of the AK Party’s attempt to switch to a presidential or semi-presidential system is designing a political model in which Erdogan is the only decision maker and the head of state.

Would President Gul accept becoming a prime minister who has only symbolic powers?

Even if he did, to what extent would Erdogan’s core staff accept Gul’s Prime Ministry?

While determining the party’s deputy candidate lists in the 2011 parliamentary elections, Erdogan’s aim was to consolidate the party’s political identity and to strengthen it at the grassroots level, which boosted his own political identity. The government attempted to cover up its failure in foreign policy — like the developments in Egypt and Syria — via patriotic discourse, and the AK Party voters quickly adopted this discourse as well.

The AK Party executives will continue their efforts to carve out their political identity and maintain their voter base in the parliamentary elections slated for 2015. This is why if Erdogan decides to run for president, the person who will assume his current office has to be a congenial figure, one who can accept being a symbolic prime minister.

Invisible barriers

This is not the only roadblock to Gul becoming prime minister. Another significant roadblock is the party’s changing administrative staff and its new style of politics. Today’s AK Party has no features in common with the AK Party of 2002, 2007 and 2011. The AK Party has moved away from its previous political stances, which were democrat, pluralistic, responsive to human rights, at peace with the EU’s values and supportive of the rule of law.

Particularly after 2011, the AK Party turned into a single-man party that exchanged pluralism for supporting the majority, and democratic values for anti-democratic practices. This is why not only Erdogan’s close colleagues but also the party’s style of politics have changed.

Hence, it is clear that the new party management is not going to welcome Gul. As a general conclusion, just like Erdogan, they will also prefer to work with a prime minister who is ideologically close to them.

In addition to this, the 73 politicians who started their political careers with Gul will put an end to their active political lives if the AK Party’s bylaw that limits deputies to three consecutive terms in office is not altered. This will increase Gul’s isolation within the party.

End or fresh start

As you may have noticed, Gul as president or AK Party chairman will not come easy, as these roles depend completely on Erdogan’s will. It seems unlikely for Erdogan to want to share his powers as president with Gul, who has expressed different opinions from him about recent developments.

Moreover, I doubt if Gul, who knows that his return to the party will not be so easy, would agree to lead a political party where he is not welcome.

Indeed, Gul has to be elected party chairman by the AK Party congress, which means that reaching consensus with Erdogan is much more important than his influence over the AK Party executives. Would Gul engage in such a political struggle against Erdogan’s will? Even if he did, would the opposition parties support him? These are important questions.

In such a scenario Gul may part ways with the AK Party and establish different political alliances.

We will wait and see if Gul decides to leave the political arena or consider other options.

Erdogan may block Gul’s way if PM does not run for president

All these scenarios are possible developments if Erdogan runs for president.

It is unlikely, but what would happen if Erdogan preferred not to run for president and altered the tree-term rule for only himself in order to be elected prime minister for another term? Would Gul run for a second term in office? If he did, would Erdogan support him?

The general conviction backstage amongst political circles in Ankara is that this is unlikely. However, if Erdogan does not run for president, the AK Party may nominate a person other than Gul as its presidential candidate.

As I mentioned above, in recent years, Erdogan and Gul have expressed different opinions on several political issues, including fundamental rights and freedoms. This is why Erdogan may choose another as his party’s presidential nominee, someone who will work in harmony with him.

When will the opposition make a move?

While debates on the AK Party’s strategy for the presidential election continue, all eyes are turned to the opposition parties. Will the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) unite and support a joint candidate?

If they can unite, do they have any prospective candidates?

Do they want to include the Kurds in their alliance?

And more importantly, would they support Gul’s re-nomination?

We will soon have the answers to these questions.