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Turkey: two roads to power

Anti-government protests in Turkey have revealed more than just a divide in the country; they are also highlighting differences between Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul ahead of 2014 Presidential elections.

The two most powerful men in Turkish politics, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, have weathered ongoing protests in Turkey and emerged in very different ways. Prime Minister Erdogan's approval and popularity took a major blow, whereas his long-time political ally President Abdullah Gul earned appreciation with his moderate and constructive tone during the crisis.

A recent survey revealed that Erdogan's popularity ratings have slid 7 percent in the past month, to 53.5 percent. Almost two-thirds of respondents (72.5 percent) said they like President Abdullah Gul most from among existing political figures, according to a survey conducted by the Turkish polling company, MetroPOLL.

"In general, [the] popularity of presidents has always been better than the prime minister's, as presidential decisions are not directly affecting the daily life of people, but decisions by prime ministers can often create uneasiness in some part of the population," said Ozer Sencer, director of MetroPOLL, to DW.

Tear gas used on protestors in Turkey. (Photo: epa)

The two leaders had very different approaches to the protests

"But a second important factor that has led to this outcome is the response to Prime Minister Erdogan's harsh rhetoric, his radical stance," Ozer continued. "Compared with Erdogan, Gul has a more moderate rhetoric and approach. These clear differences influence the way Erdogan and Gul have been perceived by the people."

According to the survey, while Erdogan's approval ratings are going down among the general population, he is still the most popular figure in the eyes of the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) grassroots, which account for around 35 percent of the total electorate. Unlike Erdogan, Gul has been successful in reaching out to a wider population, including liberals, nationalists and those who don't otherwise typically vote for the AKP.

Different political styles

Sedat Bozkurt is a senior journalist specializing in political Islam and the AKP in Turkey. He believes cracks between the two men have been widened by the Gezi Park protests.

Both Gul and Erdogan started out as followers of former Islamic leader Necmettin Erbakan's "National Movement" during the 1990s. The two were the most influential figures of the reformist wing in the movement, and they founded the moderate AKP in 2001.

Gul has always been regarded as a diplomatic moderate; partly because he represented his party in Europe during the 90s and served as foreign minister between 2003 and 2007. But for many observers, Gul lacks the "charisma" associated with Erdogan, who wins popularity contests among the grassroots of the AKP.

Supporters hold a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul June 16, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

Erdogan still has strong support among grassroots AKP voters

"Gul is more Western-oriented. He has embraced Western norms, made Turkey's EU process a priority," Bozkurt told DW. "What we have seen during the Gezi Park protests is that while Gul views democracy as a participatory process, Erdogan almost reduces democracy to the ballot box," Bozkurt continued. "Erdogan's view of Turkey's EU process is also largely different from Gul. Erdogan is a typical conservative politician in the Turkish context, but of course he is a very strong, successful one."

During the nationwide anti-government protests in Turkey last month, Prime Minister Erdogan harshly criticized the protestors, telling them to leave the streets immediately and vote at the ballot box and not on the pavement. President Gul, on the other hand, in public remarks called for moderation and stressed that "democracy is not just about elections."

Their differing statements raised speculation of a rift between the two leaders, and prompted some analysts to wonder whether the stage was being set for a contest in the forthcoming presidential elections in August 2014.

Behind closed doors

So far, both leaders have refrained from any harshly worded criticism of the other in public. Various press reports on looming competition between Erdogan and Gul have been strongly denied by Erdogan's aides, who called them "plots" aimed at trying to "stir up a conflict between the two leaders" in order to topple the AKP government.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), his wife Emine Erdogan (R) and Turkish president Abdullah Gul (L) attend the opening ceremony of the third Bosphorus bridge on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. (Photo: AFP /MIRA /Getty Images)

A show of togetherness - but are there political divergences behind the scenes?

But despite the denials, Erdogan's political maneuvering behind closed doors suggests that competition between the two is present, and increasing. Erdogan's close aides attempted last year to make constitutional changes in order to block Gul's chance to run for a second term as president. The attempt failed.

It is still not clear whether Gul will actually seek a second term - but his recent assertive public relations activities and social media campaigns show that he intends to continue being politically active long after 2014.

Erdogan's plans

"Prime Minister Erdogan's long desire has been to switch the political system in Turkey to an executive presidential one and become the first directly elected president with strong powers," Bozkurt thinks. Under the current system, the presidency is a largely ceremonial role, with executive power being exercised by the government and the prime minister. "But the Gezi Park protests showed that Erdogan will have to give up these plans, as he lacks support for constitutional change," Bozkurt said.

According to Bozkurt, Erdogan seems to have run out of alternatives. Nevertheless, he will most likely run for president in next year's election, when voters will elect their president directly for the first time. This seems to be his only option, as under current rules, it would be impossible for Erdogan to run for a fourth consecutive term as prime minister.

Erdogan has long been a vocal supporter of the AKP's party statute restricting political positions to three consecutive terms. As his hopes of introducing a strong presidential system fade, he is now faced with two options: either change the party statute or announce his candidacy for next year's presidential elections.

Head to head for presidency?

"I see the possibility of an open confrontation or even a race between Gul and Erdogan for the presidential elections [as] highly unlikely," said Bozkurt. According to Bozkurt, Turkey might look to the Putin-Medvedev model as a workable solution for keeping both men in power and for keeping harmony within AKP ranks.

Although this might be good for the party, protestors in Turkey are worried about such new developments. Many of them feel that Erdogan, although he likes to flaunt his popular mandate, is not really developing along the democratic lines they would like to see.

Protesters against Erdogan in Istanbul stand silently for their rights. (Photo: Gaia Anderson)

The protests didn't just reveal a divided Turkey, they have uncovered a divide in politics too

"A highly probable scenario now is that Erdogan will run for the Presidency in 2014 and Gul will become the leader of the AKP and the Prime Minister in 2015," Bozkurt said. "This solution may prevent any tensions between the two leaders in the short-term. But what will happen after 2015 remains to be seen," he cautioned. Erdogan will likely seek more power and try to exert more influence on the government, Bozkurt thinks, which may cause new tensions and even crisis.

Turkey is also watching its neighbors closely - as events unfold in Syria and Egypt, uncertainties also remain with regard to the government's initiative to find a peaceful political solution to the Kurdish issue. Unforseen changes like these could also influence the course of the country's political future - and its leadership.

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