Turkish presidents past and present square up for possible election showdown

A recent spat between Turkish former president and founding member of the Islamist ruling party Abdullah Gül and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has fuelled speculation the two might run against each other in the 2019 presidential election.

A mildly worded tweet from Gül on Dec. 25 expressed worry over emergency decree 696, which gives immunity to civilians who helped stop the attempted military coup in July 2016 and “terrorist acts” following the coup. Opposition leaders said the decree gave carte blanche to government supporters taking the law into their own hands.

Gül also recently called for the end of pre-trial detention for journalists and expressed his hope that the sixth extension of the state of emergency, in force since the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup, would be the last.

“Shame on you,” Erdoğan chided Gül on Dec. 30. “How did you get on Kemal’s boat?” he asked, in reference to the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

“Those who were once under our party’s roof, but have now taken to drifting around outside in a different sort of mood have no right to say anything about our party,” Erdoğan said in a speech on Jan. 10.

Gül and Erdoğan have long been rivals within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gül, a former academic who studied in Britain and stepped away from active politics in 2014, has periodically voiced muted criticism. Erdoğan’s caustic response was more surprising than Gül’s comments, since the president usually prefers to present a united front and rarely criticises other top AKP figures.

“[Gül] sees himself as an experienced politician and positions himself as a wise man entitled to comment on important issues in the country. What was unusual was the strong reaction to him by Erdoğan and the AKP,” Suat Kınıklıoğlu, senior fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Stockholm and former AKP member of parliament, wrote in an email to Ahval.

“Given the strong reaction to (Gül’s) comments, one must assume that he still has a considerable following.”

Ömer Taşpınar, a professor at the National War College and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes Gül may be testing the waters for a possible presidential bid in 2019, and this is what worries Erdoğan.

“(Erdoğan) feels that Gül may become a threat and he wants to either pre-empt the menace or impose his own timing before Gül has time to organise a challenge,” Taşpınar wrote in an email.

“Erdoğan thrives when he attacks and when he has a concrete target.”

If the Afrin operation retained its popularity, he said, this may lead to Erdoğan gambling on early elections.

"I think early elections are likely this summer around July 15. Erdoğan hopes to capitalise on the popularity of the Afrin operation but things may change if there are casualties in the near future."

Some analysts said that Gül, regarded as more moderate and conciliatory than Erdoğan, and with fewer enemies, could attract support from a more diverse base.

“I think if Gül runs he would force Erdoğan into a second round and would receive the support of the CHP and HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in the second round,” Taşpınar said.

But Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow at the Silk Road Studies Programme, thinks the rumours are immaterial because Gül, whose supporters within the AKP were purged years ago, does not have the guts or resources to directly challenge Erdoğan.

“We’re still seeing the same Gül who needs to be in the public eye and to have some ambitions, and yet he’s still frightened of going in for the long haul against Erdoğan,” Jenkins said.

Though initially sticking by his comments after being attacked by Erdoğan and pro-government media outlets, Gül later appeared to back down.

“Erdoğan has built up all of these networks, all of these connections,” Jenkins said. “Gül … has never had the kind of rooted support that Erdoğan has.”

Other analysts questioned the relevancy of Gül or any other potential opposition candidate’s popularity in an election that would almost certainly be unfair, if not marred by fraud.

“There are no longer normal electoral conditions in Turkey to speak of. Hence, it does not matter who will run against Erdoğan,” Kınıklıoğlu said. Turkey’s Syria offensive might be an important boost for Erdoğan, Kınıklıoğlu said, and another reason for him to seek an early election. "In this nationalist atmosphere there is no doubt it will (help Erdoğan). Yes, I think an early election is now more likely than before."

“(Gül) could garner more support than Erdoğan if Turkey were under normal circumstances or a presidential election were to take place fairly,” columnist and distinguished visiting scholar at the Stockholm University Institute of Turkish Studies Cengiz Çandar wrote in an email.

But Çandar does not believe Gül would risk running in an unfair election.

The Afrın operation could be crucial in elections, he said, if it does not drag on. “But if it takes longer than he expected, it may erode his popularity."

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said last April’s referendum that approved switching to an executive presidency took place “on an unlevel playing field” in a legal framework “inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process”.

Jenkins said Turkey’s fragmented opposition needed to unite around a fresh candidate without any baggage, but none of those suggested as contenders posed any threat.

Recent polls put support for Erdoğan at just under 50 percent, and it is particularly low among young people.

“Erdoğan’s approval ratings aren’t good from his perspective. He really wanted to be 55 percent or above in terms of support at this stage,” Jenkins said.

Even with a boost from the Syria operation, discontent with Erdoğan and economic woes mean that snap elections remain unlikely.

Erdoğan, Jenkins said, “would not be brave enough to try to win without fraud when his numbers are like this. He’s not a risk taker.”