Turkish former president says country was wrong to adopt presidential system

(Updates with Gül comments on Gezi protests, paragraphs 20-25)

Abdullah Gül, a founding member of Turkey’s ruling party and the predecessor as president to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, spoke out against the executive presidential system and Turkish foreign policy in rare public criticism from a man sometimes tipped as a potential challenger to his former ally.

Gül served in the largely ceremonial post of president from 2007 to 2014, while his close ally, Erdoğan, was prime minister, and before that as a widely respected foreign minister.

But since Erdoğan took over as president and steered Turkey towards a system in which the head of state has wide-ranging executive powers, Gül has largely stepped back from frontline politics, though analysts say he has been unhappy with the country’s political direction. Some have even pointed to Gül as a leader who could unite Erdoğan’s disparate opponents.

"I said the parliamentary system is more accurate for Turkey even while I was the president. My choice is for a fully democratic parliamentary system. Parliament has never been this insignificant until today. Turkey feels the absence of it," Gül said in an interview with Karar newspaper published on Tuesday.

Turkey voted to move to the new system in a referendum in 2017, held during a period of emergency rule following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The new system did away with the position of prime minister and allowed Erdoğan to pass laws by decree and tied key institutions, as well as much financial control, to the presidency.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) maintains the new system allows for the smoother running of government, but critics say it has emasculated parliament and ushered in one-man rule.

Gül also voiced concern over Turkey’s policy in Syria, where 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in shelling by Russian-backed Syrian government forces this month. Erdoğan last week pledged to hit back at the Syrian government anywhere in the country if any more Turkish troops were hurt in posts they control in the rebel-held northwest Syrian province of Idlib.

“What I will say, that even if we are very provoked, is not to enter an all-out war with Syria,” Gül said.

Turkey has been involved in the crisis in Syria since the war broke out in 2011 without a proper exit plan, and had enhanced collaboration with Russia while drifting away from its Western allies, he said.

Turkey’s problems with the United States have also drawn it closer to Moscow, but drifting away from the West would weaken Turkish democracy, Gül said.

"Turkey needs to be part of the Western bloc together with Europe to ensure a democratic and pluralistic country. In this respect, its recent relations with Russia are off-balance," he said.

Gül also criticised the government's purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles, despite the objections of Turkey’s NATO allies.

The United States opposes the S-400 deal since the Russian system is not compatible with NATO systems and due to fears that Turkey’s deployment of the missiles would allow Russia to glean sensitive information about the defences of NATO’s advanced fighter jets.

Turkey also risks U.S. sanctions over S-400 purchase which aims to deter third parties from defence partnership with Russia and Congress has blocked the delivery of the 100 advanced fifth-generation F-35 stealth aircraft the Turkish military has ordered.

The former president said Turkey's S-400 acquisition could undermine the power of its army, the second largest in NATO after that of the United States.

"Because ultimately all the standards of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), everything from its air force to ground forces is at NATO standards. The strength of the TSK comes from that," Gül said.

Turkish defence officials and diplomats should have seen that a country could not have both Russian missiles and aircraft developed to bypass that defence system at the same time, he said.

Gül said Turkey's Kurdish question had become a regional and international issue after the 2015 collapse of a promising ceasefire between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the subsequent Turkish invasion of Kurdish-held northern parts of Syria.

"It is all our responsibility. When we could not solve it within our initiative through high human rights standards, it gained regional and international dimensions, these are tough jobs," he said.

Former President Gül also spoke on the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

“From the very beginning, when I was asked [about the protests], I said ‘I am very proud of them’,’’Gül said.

“People [of Turkey] in the past, would take to the streets to for human rights or for end to unsolved murders. But now, people had taken to the streets to prevent the cutting of trees,’’ he added.

“I said to myself, we have turned Turkey’s problems into those of the UK and the United States,’’ the former president added.

The Gezi protests, which started as a small-scale peaceful sit-in to demonstrate against the proposed destruction of a small Istanbul park, quickly spread across the country, with many young people joining in to voice their discontent with Erdoğan’s Islamist government.

Gül’s statements arrived on the day a Turkish court acquitted nine top civil society activists accused of terrorism charges linked to protests.