The ‘Gül difference’ in Turkish administration

The ‘Gül difference’ in Turkish administration

“The loss of life is not a joke” is the striking sentence Turkish President Abdullah Gül used esterday about the death of a 22-year old man, Ahmet Atakan in a protest demonstration two days earlier on September 9.

The full expression that he used is as follows: “The most sensitive inspections will be done over this issue. What’s necessary will be done. It is a controversial issue as far as I understood. But I felt great sorrow. The loss of life is not a joke”.

The death of the young man sparked further protests with the suspicion that he was actually killed (hit in the head by a tear gas canister) and further police reaction to them in different cities of Turkey on September 10 night. The controversy that Gül was mentioning the next morning was about Atakan’s death. The course of the debate had changed following a video released by semi-official Anadolu Agency, showing a body – presumably that of Atakan – dropping from somewhere high, presumably from the roof of a building, where, according to some reports he was throwing objects on the armored police vehicle there trying to disperse the crowd. It is not certain yet whether he had fallen after being hit or if he was not hit at all. Interior Minister Muammer Güler stated that there was no uncertainty that the death was not due to a stroke to his head. 

It is important to note that Gül’s expression of grief neither makes a judgment of whether Atakan was committing a crime, nor the police, but takes a humanitarian and neutral stance as a President should do. It could be recalled that Gül had said in the first days of the Gezi incidents that unnecessary use of force by the police had put fuel on the fire and caused the incidents to escalate. After Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s full backing of the police, calling their act as “legendarily heroic” and giving them bonuses because of their high performance, Gül preferred not to make any comment on that, perhaps in order not to cause further allegations that there is a discrepancy between him and the Prime Minister.

There are more examples to underline Gül’s difference in the Turkish administration. To name a few, it was Gül who said that “Democracy is not about the ballot box only. You should listen to people,” on June 3, in the heat of Gezi protests and exactly one month before the coup in Egypt which toppled the elected President Mohamed Morsi. He was criticized (without being named) by Erdoğan and a number of ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) MPs and pro-government writers. In foreign policy, his statements regarding the developments in Egypt and Syria were not weaker in content than those of the government members but in a less alienating rhetoric. He was the first to raise the Kurdish issue as the “most important” problem of Turkey and recently he received a delegation of Alevis to listen to their demands and expectations from a new constitution. Gül’s press office has recently released a list of Turkish cities that he had visited since he was elected in 2007; some of them had not been visited by a president for decades.

Erdoğan wants a stronger presidency for the future of Turkey, while Gül is trying to draw a softer, embracing one.