Rumors swirl about ex-president as potential Erdogan challenger

Rumors swirl about ex-president as potential Erdogan challenger
Abdullah Gul
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Updated 24 May 2023

Rumors swirl about ex-president as potential Erdogan challenger

Rumors swirl about ex-president as potential Erdogan challenger
  • Government is ‘very scared’ about Abdullah Gul’s candidacy, says leader of opposition Kemal Kilicdaroglu

ANKARA: Rumors are swirling in Turkey about the possibility of former President Abdullah Gul being the opposition’s pick to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the 2023 elections.

The two men founded the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) together in 2001. 

Gul was president between 2007 and 2014 when Erdogan was prime minister. But Gul has become a staunch critic of his former ally in the last few years.

In an interview on Aug. 17, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the government was “very scared” about a Gul candidacy.

But Gul has been criticized by some secular sections of society for remaining silent while power became increasingly centralized over the years without any effective checks and balances in place.

He is also known to be steering the newly founded breakaway Democracy and Progress Party, which was founded by the country’s former economy czar Ali Babacan.

Kilicdaroglu denied claims he was talking with Gul each week.

“Those who make accusations about ‘weekly meetings’ are under some others’ control and they are psychologically troubled individuals,” he said.

Gul is keeping quiet about a potential presidential comeback, although many think Turkey needs a better challenger.

Karol Wasilewski, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs, viewed the CHP’s possible nomination of Gul as a reflection of the changes the party had undergone under Kilicdaroglu, who decided that the CHP should be more open to conservative values in order to better compete with the AKP. But he thought it was a bad idea to have Gul take on Erdogan for several reasons.  

“First of all if they want to have a candidate acceptable to some AKP voters and able to compete with Erdogan, Ankara’s opposition mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu seem to be far better choices, because of Gul’s image as a political impotent due to his constant inability to stand up to Erdogan,” Wasilewski told Arab News. 

“Gul is not a political fighter able to defeat Erdogan contrary to, for example, the much younger and vigorous Imamoglu.”

According to Wasilewski, Gul’s nomination would discourage lots of CHP sympathizers from voting and this scenario would directly help Erdogan’s chances of winning.

“Lately there has been lots of criticism toward the AKP that it does not understand the younger generation which will most probably be decisive in 2023 elections. The nomination of Gul will show us that the CHP also has no clue as to how to approach younger voters as I can’t imagine Abdullah Gul would be able to attract Generation Z voters,” he added.

Berk Esen, a political analyst from Bilkent University in Ankara, said although some people portrayed Gul as a compromise candidate who could attract some AKP voters to defeat Erdogan, there was little proof that Gul actually resonated with the AKP base, which had been bombarded with anti-Gul discourse by pro-government media for years.

“Opposition voters also do not trust him due to his complicity in many of the AKP government’s measures as well as conspicuous silence since he stepped down from the presidency in 2014,” he told Arab News.

According to Esen, a Gul candidacy did not stand much of a chance and would almost certainly generate a challenge from the CHP camp.

Turkey’s political landscape changed dramatically after the opposition’s victory in last year’s local elections.

Esen remarked that the opposition had younger, more competent and credible candidates so it was difficult to contemplate a scenario in which Gul could energize the opposition voters, let alone draw votes from the AKP base.

“This debate around names is not a productive one but may push many in the opposition to contemplate the candidate nomination process. The CHP leadership may be pushed to allow open primaries to choose its candidate,” he added.

Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident fellow at Atlantic Council, said that nominating Gul would be a smart move but only if the opposition rallied behind him.

“Lots of secularists have hard feelings against him as Erdogan’s enabler,” he told Arab News. “He didn’t step up against Erdogan during the anti-government Gezi protests either in 2013.”

Gul was mostly in favor of dialogue with the protesters and listening to their demands. Bechev said that if the opposition vote consolidated to back him, and some AKP supporters defected, then there would be a runoff.