MESOP TODAYS COMMENTARY : THE TURKEY ANALYST / SILK ROAD STUDIES
March 8, 2016 – Former President Abdullah Gül’s recent decision to adopt a higher public profile and meet with known dissidents from inside the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has triggered a flurry of speculation that his successor, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may be about to face a serious challenge to his flailing attempts to tighten his grip on power.
BACKGROUND: There have long been many members of the AKP who have been appalled by Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, the self-aggrandizing extravagance of his new palace, the persistent allegations of corruption involving his inner circle, and the abrasive divisiveness of his vituperative rhetoric. In early 2014 some even met with Gül – who was still president at the time — in an attempt to persuade him to take the lead in confronting Erdoğan and preventing the severe damage they feared he would inflict if, as turned out to be the case, he was elected president in August 2014. The impression the would-be dissidents received was that Gül was sympathetic to their concerns and would be supportive, provided that they were the ones who took the lead. None of them was bold enough to do so.
During his final months in office, Gül’s credibility suffered another blow when he meekly ratified a battery of legislative amendments initiated by Erdoğan that further restricted freedom of expression and tightened political control over the judiciary. Although Gül had developed a reputation amongst his international interlocutors for being civilly intransigent, it tended to be in defense of an existing position rather than the more risky proactive boldness of trying to bring about change. In May 2015, Ahmet Sever, Gül’s former chief adviser, published his memoirs. They contained numerous highly critical references to Erdoğan and left little doubt about how he was regarded by Gül. In media interviews to promote the book, Sever pointedly noted that the manuscript had been read and approved by Gül before publication. But it was nevertheless Sever rather than Gül who had spoken out.
Through the second half of 2015 and into 2016, Gül occasionally issued brief public statements avowing his commitment to pluralistic democratic values and expressing his dismay as Turkey became increasingly wracked by violence, social tensions and the collapse of any residual trust in the rule of law. But he gave no indication that he was preparing to make an active attempt to reverse the process. Sources close to Gül maintained that he was reluctant to be seen to be turning on Erdoğan, his former colleague, and was fearful that criticizing the government would damage the AKP, which he had helped found in 2001. Gül’s detractors argued that he was simply afraid. They accused him of waiting for someone else to bear the brunt of challenge to Erdoğan’s authority and provide him with a shield until a relatively risk-free space opened up, into which he could then step and make his own bid for power.
Although he has frequently outraged liberals – not least through his discriminatory views on the roles and rights of women – since he retired from parliament in mid-2015, former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s willingness to speak his mind has meant that he has been one of the few members of the AKP who has been bold enough to criticize Erdoğan publicly. During an interview on national television in September 2015, Arınç claimed that Erdoğan had transformed the AKP into a vehicle for his personal ambitions, commenting: “When the party was founded it was ‘us’, now it is ‘me’.”
Nor has Arınç been deterred by the barrage of invective to which he has been subjected by Erdoğan loyalists in the press and on social media. On January 29, 2016, Arınç publicly refuted Erdoğan’s insistence that he had been unaware of the content of the dialogue between state officials and Kurdish nationalists, which Erdoğan unilaterally abrogated in March 2015. On the contrary, said Arınç, Erdoğan had been fully aware of everything that had been discussed. Arınç’s statement triggered another onslaught of abuse from Erdoğan loyalists.
On February 9, Gül met for three hours with Erdoğan at his presidential palace in Ankara. On February 10, Gül met with Arınç at the latter’s home in Ankara. They were joined by three other former AKP ministers, all of whom are known to be disturbed by Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism: Hüseyin Çelik, another former Deputy Prime Minister; Sadullah Ergin, a former Justice Minister; and Nihat Ergün, a former Minister for Science, Industry and Technology.
The meeting led to speculation that the five men, none of whom is currently a member of parliament, were planning to establish a new party. However, privately – and, in Çelik’s case, publicly – they have dismissed the suggestion, maintaining that they will work within the AKP. On March 1, the daily Cumhuriyet claimed that, following their meeting on February 9, Gül reported that he had severely criticized Erdoğan and then “pulled the plug and left”. On March 2, Gül issued a statement describing the report as “unbecoming and unfounded”. Nevertheless, even if Gül never said the precise words attributed to him by Cumhuriyet, there is no doubt of the distrust and hostility with which Gül and Erdoğan now regard each other. Indeed, some Erdoğan loyalists appear convinced that a power struggle has already begun.
IMPLICATIONS: Recently, on February 6, the AKP quietly removed Gül’s name from the list of the party’s “founding members” on its official website. Around the same time, the section about Gül on the official website of the Turkish presidency was pared down to a brief biography and all of the links to his speeches, statements and photographs were deleted. The same was not done for Gül’s predecessors as president.
Such apparent pettiness appears to reflect a genuine fear amongst Erdoğan loyalists that Gül has already started his bid for power. On November 26, 2015, Cumhuriyet editor in chief and Ankara bureau chief Can Dündar and Erdem Gül were arrested and imprisoned on charges of “disclosing state secrets” and “membership of an armed terrorist organization” following the publication by Cumhuriyet in May 2015 of photographs showing shipments of weapons and ammunition by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in January 2014 to extremist groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Erdoğan insists that the shipments were of “humanitarian aid”, although he has never explained why this would need to be a state secret. On February 25, 2016, the Constitutional Court upheld an appeal from the two journalists against their detention while awaiting trial. The two were released on February 26.
The Constitutional Court ruling was a major blow for Erdoğan and showed that, unlike the lower courts, there are still parts of the Turkish justice system that he does not control. On February 28, Erdoğan publicly announced that he did not recognize the Constitutional Court ruling and would not implement it. Quite what this means in practice currently remains unclear. However, Erdoğan loyalists accused Gül of orchestrating the release of the two journalists, on the grounds that nine of the seventeen members of the Constitutional Court were appointed by Gül while he was president.
In reality, there is no evidence that Gül played any role in the Constitutional Court’s decision. Nor is there any indication that he has yet formulated a detailed strategy for taking the offensive against Erdoğan. For the moment, he appears still to be waiting for others to present him with an opportunity – such as the AKP inviting him to step over the rubble of a mutually damaging conflict between Erdoğan and someone else – rather than taking the risk of confronting Erdoğan himself.
Despite continuing speculation in the Turkish media, there currently appears little prospect of Gül and the other dissidents in the AKP breaking away to form a new party. Not only is establishing a new party bureaucratically laborious, time consuming and financially expensive but no elections are scheduled until 2019, when local, general and presidential elections all fall due. In theory, it would be possible for the dissidents to encourage sufficient defections from the AKP to erode its parliamentary majority to the point where the government would lose a vote of confidence and be forced to call an early general election. However, Erdoğan has handpicked most of the current AKP deputies, often purely on the basis of their supine loyalty to himself. Nor have any of the handful of AKP parliamentarians who are known to be opposed to Erdoğan yet shown any indication of having the courage to publicly defy him.
It is also an open secret that, even though he pays lip service to it in public, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is less than enthusiastic about Erdoğan’s dreams of introducing an autocratic presidential system which would officially concentrate all political power in his own hands – not least because this would reduce the position of prime minister to a coordinating rather than an executive role. Yet, even though he has sometimes prevaricated or hesitated to speak out in support of Erdoğan, Davutoğlu has nevertheless eventually done so whenever he has come under pressure from the presidential palace – a trait which has hardly enhanced his political stature and has further constrained his ability to build an independent popular support base.
CONCLUSIONS: Ever since the Gezi Park Protests that swept the country in summer 2013 there has been a sense that Turkey has entered the final, highly turbulent, stage of the Erdoğan era. The devotees of what has now become an Erdoğan personality cult still insist that he will remain in power until at least 2024 and that, once he has been able to introduce a presidential system, Erdoğan will bring domestic stability and prosperity and elevate Turkey to what they regard as its rightful place as the dominant power in the Middle East. In reality, there appears little prospect of Turkey enjoying sustained stability or prosperity, much less regional preeminence, while Erdoğan remains in office.
But it would be a mistake to regard the situation in Turkey as being static. It is not only deteriorating but doing so rapidly. Erdoğan’s increasingly repressive authoritarianism, his relentlessly aggressive anger, the improbable conspiracy theories that pepper his public pronouncements, the suppression of free speech and the spiraling viciousness of the invective of his loyalists are all redolent not of strength and confidence but of weakness and a growing sense of desperation.
If the situation continues to deteriorate at its current rate it is debatable whether either Turkey or Erdoğan’s health will be able to survive the strain for another two years — much less eight — without suffering severe damage. Indeed, if the current trend continues, a breaking point appears inevitable. But whether Gül and the other dissidents in the AKP have the courage or the ability to halt the slide before it is too late currently both remain unclear.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.