ISTANBUL — Abdullah Gül seems an odd candidate for the job of saving Turkey’s democracy.
After all, he co-founded the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) alongside Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and served as Turkey’s president while his erstwhile ally was prime minister.
Yet a public spat between Gül and Erdoğan has raised hopes among Turkey’s democrats that the ex-president could join the opposition and run against his old friend in next year’s election.
Gül has voiced measured unease over the government’s policies before, but it was only when he condemned a presidential decree in the last week of 2017 that Erdoğan began firing back.
The controversial decree grants immunity to civilians who tried to stop the attempted coup in July 2016 and any “acts of terror” in its aftermath. The legal definition of terrorism in Turkey is broad, and opponents have warned that the decree encourages vigilantism and violence.
Gül refused to back down. “As someone who believes in freedom of thought and expression, which are founding principles of our party, I will continue to express my view in situations I find necessary,” said Gül’s office in a note signed by the ex-president on December 30.
Ever since, the clash of the presidents has become the talk of the country — and the question of whether Gül will run for office next year is dominating political shows and newspaper columns.
Turkey’s democrats say that 2019 is their last chance. It’s the year that constitutional changes passed in last year’s referendum will come into force, transforming Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system — a recipe for one-man rule, the opposition says.
But to become Turkey’s all-powerful president, Erdoğan will still need to win the twin parliamentary and presidential elections in fall 2019.
Many of Erdoğan’s opponents see Gül as an ideal challenger, given his wide appeal. Unlike Turkey’s current opposition leaders, the former president would be capable of drawing support from across the country’s rigid ideological and cultural divides, including the Kurds.
“If he decides to run, he has the biggest chance of shaking Erdoğan’s rule,” said Gönül Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“The Kurds can vote for him, liberals can vote for him, Turkish nationalists can vote for him,” she added. “And certainly people within the AKP who have been uneasy about what Erdoğan has been doing — they would vote for him.”
Gül’s comments — and the idea that he could run in 2019 — have clearly struck a nerve, with AKP officials publicly reprimanding their ex-president. Abdulkadir Selvi, an influential columnist at Hürriyet, wrote: “Erdoğan has declared war on Gül.”
Gül’s critics have dismissed the idea that he could become Turkish democracy’s savior as absurd. They note that aside from continuous but gentle criticism, Gül has done little to counter Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, including during his term as president from 2007 to 2014.
Abdullatif Şener, an AKP co-founder who has now split with the party, ridiculed Gül for his cautious language last week, calling his comments on the decree a “small, shy, timid expression of criticism” in an interview with the leftist newspaper Evrensel. Gül, Şener said, was “not an alternative” to Erdoğan.
Many of those who consider him a suitable candidate doubt that Gül is brave enough to openly challenge Erdoğan.
“He’s a very risk-averse person,” said Tol. “For him to decide to run, he’d have to know it’s bulletproof … I talked to some people who are personally very close to him who say he’s waiting for the right moment. But I feel very skeptical.”
Gül’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.
Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy who served as an AKP MP until 2011, said he thinks Gül’s recent comments suggest the ex-president is “not comfortable with just observing.” Still, he did not believe Gül would necessarily run for office.
“I am more inclined to think that he sees himself as a man who has been in a meaningful office in Turkish politics and that he feels he is entitled to comment on issues of national importance,” he said.
Whether Gül will challenge Erdoğan and whether he would stand a chance of winning are, in any case, secondary questions to Kınıklıoğlu. His chief concern is whether the choice for 2019 will matter at all — given the serious deterioration of freedoms and democracy in Turkey.
“There are no longer normal political or electoral conditions to speak of in Turkey,” he said. “I do not think that free and fair elections are possible anymore in Turkey, and thus find the current debate about the 2019 elections somewhat sterile.”
He was not surprised that Turkish democrats are fixated on Gül. “Isn’t this a clear demonstration that none of the current opposition leaders offer hope to be a serious contender against Erdoğan?” he asked.
The Middle East Institute’s Tol agreed. “They are actually desperate,” she said. “I don’t see any other credible challenger.”