Will Abdullah Gül lead the way to change in Turkish politics?

Will Abdullah Gül lead the way to change in Turkish politics?

As Turkey’s 2019 presidential elections approach, many are wondering if anyone stands a chance against incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has won every election he entered since 2002. The circulation of power, which is routine in democracies, has not taken place in Turkey for the past 16 years. Whether that will change in 2019 is a big question.

As other parties have repeatedly failed against Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), opposition groups sometimes suggest that perhaps change is only likely to come through a division in the ruling party. Some argue that if a rival faction in the AKP splits off to form a new party then it could mobilize millions of frustrated voters who are desperate for change.

With these expectations, some eyes have turned to Abdullah Gül, a former president and a co-founder of the AKP, as a possible alternative to Erdoğan. Many wonder if Gül is “the one” who would finally bring an end to the extreme polarization between AKP’s supporters and opponents that has plagued Turkish society in recent years. Perhaps Gül could be the one to put Turkey back on the road to democracy and the rule of law. 

Over the past few years, Gül has received attention and respect not only from rival factions within the conservative camp but also from secular groups. One reason for this is the fact that many see Gül as “presidential material” thanks to his gracious manners, polite personality, impressive education background, and other qualifications.

Despite his comradeship with Erdoğan, Gül has been giving signals that he is not entirely happy with the path that the AKP has taken.

Many assume that he is capable of moving a significant number of AKP members and supporters with him if he decides to form a new party. 

But this assumption is where the problem lies.

Gül could be a powerful candidate who could, theoretically, bring positive change to Turkish politics. But in today’s climate this seems unlikely to happen. From the perspective of Gül, all the incentives are against him running for the post. And from the perspective of AKP members and supporters all incentives are against supporting Gül.

It is not really about Gül and his political qualities. It is about the current incentive structure of Turkish politics. With the same party enjoying single-party rule for a decade and a half, today Turkey carries many characteristics of a dominant party system. Such systems are very hard to change.

And when they do change, it is unlikely to begin with a split in the ruling party. As democratization scholar Barbara Geddes shows, rival factions are unlikely to defect if the pay-off to defect and overthrow the dominant faction is not high enough and the cost of defection is too high (and if the attempt fails it is indeed very high). This is pretty much how the current situation in Turkey is.

Most AKP members realize that if Erdoğan steps down the AKP may lose office and many of them will lose their positions. This would be too costly, because in a dominant party system like Turkey’s incumbents have far too many advantages during elections and being in office can allow access to various privileges. 

More importantly, most AKP members believe that if secularists win office again after 17 years they will fight tooth and claw to stay there. Seeing the secularists in power again is something they want to avoid at all costs. In the polarized context of today’s Turkey, many AKP members do not foresee a bright fate for themselves after their party leaves office. That is why they are most likely to cooperate with Erdoğan, even if they have issues with some of his policies and would prefer to see Gül as their leader.

Knowing all this, what are the chances that Gül will run for the presidency?

It seems unlikely that Gül will be “the one” who will lead the way to change in Turkish politics. Opposition groups need to stop waiting for some faction in the ruling party to stand up and do the job for them. At the point we are at today, that is not how change is likely to begin.

GüliErdoğan, 2019 elections, domestic politics,