Jessica Michek and Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
After large protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square at the end of May, quickly spreading across the country, Turkey dominated the news. But as that unrest died down and as the rest of the Middle East grew even more chaotic Turkey disappeared from the headlines. In the last several weeks, however, we have witnessed the Turkish government beginning to react to the summer’s events. While not as captivating as the earlier protests, several events, ranging from the cautiously hopeful to the slightly peculiar, are noteworthy for what they indicate about the careful balance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are trying to strike in their politics, both foreign and domestic.
This post, the third in a series on significant developments in Turkey over the past month, deals with political dynamics within the ruling AKP. The range of challenges facing Erdoğan’s government, from regional upheavals to domestic unrest to a slowing economy, has sparked dissatisfaction within his own party and led to rumors that President Abdullah Gül might rise to challenge him, rumors that Gül’s recent parliamentary address has only fueled. Thus, Turkey’s three upcoming elections —local (in March 2014), presidential (in August 2014), and parliamentary (in 2015)—will prove critical both to Turkey’s future and Erdoğan’s political fate. Previously, we examined the AKP government’s democratization package and Turkey’s attempts to cultivate better ties with China – and possibly express displeasure with its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – through its choice of a Chinese weapons company for a missile defense system.
For recommendations on how the United States should address these changing dynamics in Turkey, watch out for the report of the BPC’s Turkey Task Force, chaired by former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy, that will be released on October 23.
President Gül’s Address: A Rift in the AKP?
Opening the Turkish Parliament for the final time under his presidency, President Abdullah Gül addressed the Turkish Parliament on October 1 in a speech dominated by recent events in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. Broadly, it welcomed new positive developments, reiterated concern for Syria, urged for the harmonization of relations with Egypt, and called for calm within Turkey. Gül’s comments on Turkey’s domestic political situation were read by many observers as explicit criticisms of Erdoğan, however, and could foreshadow an upcoming political showdown between the two leaders.
AKP by-laws prevent Erdoğan from seeking another term in Turkey’s top position. In the upcoming election cycle, Erdoğan can choose to run for president or try to change the internal rules of his party and stay as the Prime Minister. Gül, who is free to seek either the presidency or the position of Prime Minister, could – if he chooses – mount a formidable challenge to Erdoğan for either post. If, through agreement or through circumstance, Erdoğan and Gül switch positions, Gül would hold the more powerful position and, as Turkey’s presidents are required to give up their party membership, take leadership of the AKP from Erdoğan.
In his address, Gül praised Turkey’s “silent revolution” that has, over the past decade, seen the expansion of democracy and human rights in Turkey. He also called for further democratic reforms and for social cohesion between factions that would allow for the “normalization” of Turkey, in contrast to the polarization and violence in Syria and Egypt. In direct contrast to Erdoğan’s starkly divisive “us vs. them” comments during the Taksim protests where he denounced those that gathered in Turkey’s public squares and streets as “looters” and “terrorists,” Gül spoke out against the harm caused by divisive rhetoric, saying “polarization in political debates in our country sometimes extends beyond politics, which may upset identities and beliefs and cause sensitivities. Such polarization obviously has the potential to harm the social cohesion of our people.”
The conciliatory tone struck by Gül, both in this address and since the first days of the Taksim protests, is both a quiet criticism of Erdoğan’s policies and, potentially, an attempt to build an independent base of political support. With no viable political opposition to the AKP, the emerging Erdoğan-Gül competition will be the big story in the upcoming elections. Whether it turns into a struggle for leadership of the AKP, a schism that divides the party in two, or a fizzled prediction, could play a big role in determining Turkey’s future direction.