Debates over its candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections appear to have triggered a power struggle within Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
Under Turkish law, the president is elected by parliament. With 341 seats in Turkey’s 550 member unicameral assembly, the AK Party can virtually appoint its own candidate provided it can ensure a sufficient number of opposition deputies participate in the vote to secure the legally required quorum of two-thirds of the members of parliament. On July 26, the Turkish media quoted Devlet Bahceli, whose opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) has 70 seats in parliament, as stating that the party would participate in any presidential vote (EDM, July 26).
Initially, the AK Party welcomed Bahceli’s surprise statement. However, it also increased the pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who now has to choose between two unpalatable decisions.
In April 2007, the AK Party’s attempts to elect Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the presidency provoked an outcry from Turkish secularists, including an implicit warning from the country’s powerful military that it would topple the government if Gul was appointed. In addition to doubts about Gul’s own commitment to secularism, many were appalled by the prospect of his headscarfed wife becoming Turkey’s first lady. In response, the AK Party called an early election.
In the wake of the AK Party’s landslide victory in the Turkish general election of July 22, Erdogan implied that his party would put forward a compromise for the presidency when the new parliament convened in early August. However, Gul responded by holding a press conference on July 25 at which he implied that he expected once again to be the AK Party’s candidate (EDM, July 25).
Gul’s warm, affable manner and impeccable English have long made him a favorite of the Western media and the diplomatic community in Ankara. But, in Turkish terms, he lacks the political charisma of Erdogan, whose raw emotionality and brusque, often combative, rhetoric resonate with the mass of the electorate in a way that Gul’s sophisticated charm never can. However, the events of April gave a huge boost to Gul’s personal popularity, transforming his image within the party from that of a remote elitist to a victim of an antidemocratic conspiracy by Turkey’s secularist establishment.
Erdogan is known to harbor presidential ambitions. It was only after months of warnings from the Turkish military that he finally decided not to put himself forward for the presidency in April. Despite the recent increase in his popularity, Gul is aware that he can never challenge Erdogan for the prime ministry and he likely will never have a better chance to be president.
Although few expect the Turkish military to attempt to seize power, it is not likely to remain silent if Gul stands as a presidential candidate. On July 30, Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit told journalists, “The Turkish military does not change its opinions by the day. We stand behind what we have said in the past” (Anadolu Ajans, July 30).
Erdogan is known to be anxious to avoid any tensions over the presidency, which, even if they do not trigger a military intervention, could severely hamper the government’s attempts to deal with a range of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues; not least the question of a possible cross-border military operation against the camps of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
On July 31, Erdogan met for over three hours with Gul and Parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc, who is the most prominent member of the AK Party’s conservative wing. Later that evening, Erdogan held another 90-minute meeting with Gul on his own (Vatan, Radikal, August 2). A report by the Anka News Agency that Erdogan had explicitly instructed Gul not to stand (Anka, August 1) was swiftly denied by party officials. Sources close to Gul were adamant that nothing had changed and that he still planned to stand as a candidate for the presidency (Milliyet, August 2).
However, there is no doubt that Erdogan and Gul discussed the presidency and that Erdogan would prefer Gul to withdraw his candidacy. But Erdogan is reluctant to order Gul to stand down for fear of dividing the party. He is also aware that, if he explicitly blocks Gul’s candidacy, his charisma – which is heavily dependent on his “political machismo” – would be tarnished by the perception that he is afraid of the Turkish military.
Tomorrow, August 4, all of the new deputies are due to attend parliament for the official swearing-in ceremony. Erdogan is expected to take the opportunity to sound out opinion within the party in the hope that Gul can be persuaded to withdraw his candidacy voluntarily. Sources close to Gul have indicated that he will announce his final decision on Monday, August 6 (Milliyet, August 3). If Gul publicly states that he will still be a candidate, then Erdogan is expected to try to save face within the party by supporting him; and then brace himself for a reaction from the Turkish military.