Is Abdullah Gül back on the stage?
Were the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013 a product of “foreign powers” or “the mastermind,” aiming to topple then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? The Gezi protests were a relief for the country’s pro-democracy elements, showing that Turkey’s youths are not as “apolitical” as was claimed. The protests also sounded alarm bells for Erdoğan’s one-man-rule aspirations.
It is now claimed that the roots of the discord between Erdoğan and former President Abdullah Gül date back to the Gezi era. Gül was still in office at the time and Erdoğan was on a trip abroad when the protests first broke out. Gül and the then Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç were reportedly of the opinion that a cancellation of plans to rebuild a former Ottoman barracks on the site of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, coupled with an apologetic statement, would help to mollify the protesting youths.
Those who gathered at Gezi Park and in city squares across Turkey defied excessive police force, provocateurs and machete yielding die-hard Erdoğan loyalists vowing to slaughter his opponents. They demanded nothing except democratic governance, transparency and respect for the environment. The fundamental stimulus of the Gezi protests was their firm opposition to the macho leadership style and increasing know-it-all attitude of Erdoğan. It is therefore not an exaggeration to view the Gezi demonstrations as a wave of youth protests against Erdoğan.
Gül did not support the protesters at the time and neither did Arınç. The only difference between them and Erdoğan was the apparent effort on their part to understand why there was such an uprising in the country. Erdoğan, on the other hand, opted to deal with the protests with his well-honed tactic of simply going on the offensive.
Despite sharp differences between Erdoğan and Gül over how the Gezi protests should have been dealt with, the two founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to refrain from engaging in a public war of words. Later, Gül was known to be against Erdoğan’s desired shift to an executive presidential system and could not be brought around by a long tete-a-tete meeting between the two ahead of the April 2017 referendum.
This is the background to why Erdoğan recently publicly complained – without directly naming Gül - that those voicing doubts about the controversial decree law providing an amnesty to civilians who fought against the July 2016 coup attempt are actually no different from people who voted against the constitutional changes in the April 2017 referendum.
Is Gül, as pro-Erdoğan pen slingers have started to suggest, trying to emerge as the presidential candidate for anti-Erdoğan groups?
Let’s be realistic. Has anyone ever seen Gül taking a risk in any field? The only political risk he has ever undertaken was the rebellion that he - together with Erdoğan, Arınç and Abdüllatif Şener – took against former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, when it was almost certain that the Welfare Party would be closed down by the Constitutional Court back in the 1990s. Erdoğan was always on the stage as the leader of the AKP, apart from a short period in 2002. During that period - when Erdoğan could not assume public office because of his prison sentence - until he was pardoned with the help of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and elected to parliament in a makeshift by-election in Siirt, Gül was the official leader of AKP.
Gül, even if he wanted, cannot be a trusted opposition bet as a presidential candidate in the elections scheduled for 2019. That would be worse than the Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu fiasco in the previous election in 2014, a strategic misstep that ultimately presented the presidency on a golden plate to Erdoğan.
So perhaps Gül, as an “above-politics” personality, may be trying without ulterior motives to contribute to the fight to preserve Turkey’s democracy, which is under threat of totalitarianism. But even in this mission Gül’s past performance is not a promising one.