Bülent Arınç, Turkey’s vice prime minister and the second name of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said something interesting last weekend, which may have important implications for Turkey’s political future. Speaking of the future leadership of the AKP, which will be an open bet if Erdoğan becomes president in 2014, Arınç pointed to current president Abdullah Gül. “His place is on top our head,” he said, using a Turkish expression that expresses utmost respect. He explained how Gül has been an excellent president and added that if he wants to come back to the AKP after the end of his term, “the party would welcome him in the best way.”
For the Ankara-ologists who have been wondering what would happen to the AKP if Erdoğan goes to “Çankaya,” the presidential palace, this was an important signal. Gül, this statement by Arınç implied, can well become the leader of Turkey in mid-2015.
To explain how, first let me give some background. Erdoğan, Gül and Arınç are the very trio who co-founded the AKP in 2001, to come to power the next year. At first, Erdoğan was almost the first among the equals, but he gradually accumulated more power. When Gül left the party in 2007 to become the president (with Erdoğan’s support), Erdoğan’s control in the party became even more obvious and even absolute.
But Gül’s term is coming to an end in June 2014, and Erdoğan aims to be his successor by winning that top post with popular vote. (One reason that pushes Erdoğan is the three-term self-imposed limit he has with regards to prime ministry.) Yet it seems that Erdoğan will not be able to transform the political system to a super-presidency that his strategists have been pushing for a while. He simply does not have the mandate to change the whole Constitution for enacting such an “elected sultanate,” as some of his opponents have said.
In other words, if Erdoğan becomes president with the current (non-partisan) nature of the post, the AKP will need a leader. It is widely expected that Arınç would inherit the prime ministry from Erdoğan, but only until the next general elections, which are expected to be in June 2015. Toward those elections, the AKP will chose itself a new leader, who also will probably be the next prime minister of Turkey, assuming that the opposition will fail again to defeat the AKP.
Until recently, many in Ankara
assumed that this future leader of the AKP would probably be a yes-man of Erdoğan, someone who lacks charisma but offers solid loyalty. Yet Gül would certainly not be such an ineffective figure and would rather act as a leader with his own vision.
For many, including myself, this would be a promising scenario for Turkey. Gül has repeatedly proven to be a true Muslim democrat: someone who is a pious, conservative Muslim, and who also genuinely believes in the principles of liberal democracy. Moreover, as a polite, gentle, ever-smiling statesman, he has the qualities to initiate political dialogue and even build consensus - reasonable traits that are so painfully lacking in contemporary Turkey.
That is why Arınç’s remarks on Gül, which were a thinly-veiled invitation to him to lead the party again, came as a good sign for the future. The only thing that we still don’t know, however, is what the third actor in this game, Erdoğan, thinks about all of this.