Will Gül challenge Erdoğan for the presidency?
For outsiders it may be too early to start talking about the Turkish presidential election scheduled for November 2019. But it is certainly not for Turks, despite the fact that no strong candidate has yet emerged to challenge President Tayyip Erdoğan.
It is true that Meral Akşener, chair of the new IYI (Good) Parti, recently announced her candidacy. She also said she would support the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate if it she does not make it to the second round of voting for presidency.
Akşener’s statement is based on the possibility that Erdoğan will not get re-elected in the first round, for which he needs at least 50 percent of the votes plus one. The second round of voting will be conducted between the top two candidates from the first round on a simple majority basis.
After being silent for a long time, CHP chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu recently said for the first time that he was considering announcing his candidacy. This statement may shut out voices from within the CHP who would themselves like to put forward their candidacy as their leader is not openly volunteering. Indeed, Kılıçdaroğlu may well have doubts about his prospects if he and Erdoğan are left in the second round, with a majority of people unlikely to opt for a social democratic Alevi over Erdoğan – who has been leading the country as a conservative Sunni since 2002.
If the CHP ultimately opts not to nominate any candidate for the presidency - perhaps saying it will instead put all its weight into the parliamentary election race due to take place on the same day as the first round of presidential elections - that could pave the way for the candidacy of former President Abdullah Gül. There are many people in Turkey who could vote for Gül as their first choice and even more who could vote for him as their second choice if Erdoğan is the alternative - from center right voters to social democrats and Kurds.
That is why whenever Gül says something in a political debate, Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) react and make statements to silence him. Gül was one of the foundational pillars of the AK Parti and served as its first prime minister and first president. The strength of the reaction might indicate that AK Parti officials think the only serious challenge to Erdoğan in present-day Turkey might come from Gül, if Gül tenders his candidacy for presidency.
Will Gül do that? I do not think he will put himself forward unless he is almost 100 percent sure that people will support him. He not only wants to talk the talk, he wants to walk the walk as well. His recent remarks clearly show that he does not think the AK Parti today is the same AK Parti that he helped to rise before Erdoğan came to dominate it. But so far he has been careful not to directly challenge his old party fellow and successor as president.
But this does not mean that Gül lacks the courage to come forward. In 2000 he stood for the chair of the Virtue Party (FP) by challenging Necmettin Erbakan, a legendary figure in Islamic politics in Turkey. That move marked the beginning of efforts to found the AK Parti in 2001 and was followed by Gül coming to power in 2002. All this points to the reality that Gül is a cautious politician who takes calculated risks.