Turkey's Abdullah GÃ¼l discovers political spine, maybe Turkish president Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan (L) and former president Abdullah GÃ¼l | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
Turkish president Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan (L) and former president Abdullah GÃ¼l | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images
ISTANBUL â" Abdullah GÃ¼l seems an odd candidate for the job of saving Turkeyâs democracy.
After all, he co-founded the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alongside Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan, and served as Turkeyâs president while his erstwhile ally was prime minister.
Yet a public spat between GÃ¼l and ErdoÄan has raised hopes among Turkeyâs democrats that the ex-president could join the opposition and run against his old friend in next yearâs election.
GÃ¼l has voiced measured unease over the governmentâs policies before, but it was only when he condemned a presidential decree in the last week of 2017 that ErdoÄan began firing back.
The controversial decree grants immunity to civilians who tried to stop the attempted coup in July 2016 and any âacts of terrorâ in its aftermath. The legal definition of terrorism in Turkey is broad, and opponents have warned that the decree encourages vigilantism and violence.
âThere are no longer normal political or electoral conditions to speak of in Turkeyâ â" Suat KÄ±nÄ±klÄ±oÄlu, fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy
GÃ¼l called the decree âworrisomeâ in a carefully worded tweet, criticizing its vague language.
Speaking at a rally in northern Turkey a few days later, ErdoÄan responded. âShame on you,â he said, addressing GÃ¼l. âDid we not share a cause?â
GÃ¼l refused to back down. âAs someone who believes in freedom of thought and expression, which are founding principles of our party, I will continue to express my view in situations I find necessary,â said GÃ¼lâs office in a note signed by the ex-president on December 30.
Ever since, the clash of the presidents has become the talk of the country â" and the question of whether GÃ¼l will run for office next year is dominating political shows and newspaper columns.
Turkeyâs democrats say that 2019 is their last chance. Itâs the year that constitutional changes passed in last yearâs referendum will come into force, transforming Turkeyâs parliamentary democracy into a presidential system â" a recipe for one-man rule, the opposition says.
But to become Turkeyâs all-powerful president, ErdoÄan will still need to win the twin parliamentary and presidential elections in fall 2019.
Many of ErdoÄanâs opponents see GÃ¼l as an ideal challenger, given his wide appeal. Unlike Turkeyâs current opposition leaders, the former president would be capable of drawing support from across the countryâs rigid ideological and cultural divides, including the Kurds.
âIf he decides to run, he has the biggest chance of shaking ErdoÄanâs rule,â said GÃ¶nÃ¼l Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
âThe Kurds can vote for him, liberals can vote for him, Turkish nationalists can vote for him,â she added. âAnd certainly people within the AKP who have been uneasy about what ErdoÄan has be en doing â" they would vote for him.â
GÃ¼lâs comments â" and the idea that he could run in 2019 â" have clearly struck a nerve, with AKP officials publicly reprimanding their ex-president. Abdulkadir Selvi, an influential columnist at HÃ¼rriyet, wrote: âErdoÄan has declared war on GÃ¼l.â
GÃ¼lâs critics have dismissed the idea that he could become Turkish democracyâs savior as absurd. They note that aside from continuous but gentle criticism, GÃ¼l has done little to counter ErdoÄanâs authoritarianism, including during his term as president from 2007 to 2014.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan (R) and former president Abdullah GÃ¼l | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images
Abdullatif Åener, an AKP co-founder who has now split with the party, ridiculed GÃ¼l for his cautious language last week, calling his comments on the decree a âsmall, shy, timid expression of criticismâ in an interview with the leftist newspaper Evrensel. GÃ¼l, Åener said, was ânot an alternativeâ to ErdoÄan.
Many of those who consider him a suitable candidate doubt that GÃ¼l is brave enough to openly challenge ErdoÄan.
âHeâs a very risk-averse person,â said Tol. âFor him to decide to run, heâd have to know itâs bulletproof â¦ I talked to some people who are personally very close to him who say heâs waiting for the right moment. But I feel very skeptical.â
GÃ¼lâs office did not respond to requests for an interview.
Suat KÄ±nÄ±klÄ±oÄlu, a fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy who served as an AKP MP until 2011, said he thinks GÃ¼lâs recent comments suggest the ex-president is ânot comfortable with just observing.â Still, he did not believe GÃ¼l would necessarily run for office.
âI am more inclined to think that he sees himself a s a man who has been in a meaningful office in Turkish politics and that he feels he is entitled to comment on issues of national importance,â he said.
Whether GÃ¼l will challenge ErdoÄan and whether he would stand a chance of winning are, in any case, secondary questions to KÄ±nÄ±klÄ±oÄlu. His chief concern is whether the choice for 2019 will matter at all â" given the serious deterioration of freedoms and democracy in Turkey.
âThere are no longer normal political or electoral conditions to speak of in Turkey,â he said. âI do not think that free and fair elections are possible anymore in Turkey, and thus find the current debate about the 2019 elections somewhat sterile.â
He was not surprised that Turkish democrats are fixated on GÃ¼l. âIsnât this a clear demonstration that none of the current opposition leaders offer hope to be a serious contender against ErdoÄan?â he asked.
The Middle East Instituteâs Tol agreed. âThey are actual ly desperate,â she said. âI donât see any other credible challenger.â
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