ANKARA: Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul have strongly differing lines on Turkey’s mass protests, throwing a spotlight on their growing rivalry ahead of next year’s elections when both could potentially run for the presidency, observers say.
Ever since the first rounds of tear gas were fired at peaceful protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square last week, escalating into violent clashes nationwide, Turkey’s powerful prime minister has responded with characteristic defiance.
Despite facing the biggest challenge to his decade-long rule, the 59-year-old leader has dismissed the demonstrators as “extremists” and pressed on with an official trip to North Africa, vowing that the situation at home would be resolved by the time he returned on Thursday.
That prediction has been rubbished by demonstrators gathering in ever larger numbers to call for Erdogan’s resignation, accusing him of authoritarianism and of imposing conservative, Islamic values on the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country.
“It’s very hurtful to be treated this way,” Ahmet Insel, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, said about the many young protesters whose anger has been stoked by Erdogan’s tough stance.
“It’s hard for him (Erdogan) to tone down his aggressive and arrogant language, which doesn’t go down well with an important fringe section of society.”
In stark contrast, 62-year-old head of state Gul — often described as Turkey’s “good cop” to Erdogan’s “bad cop” — has struck a conciliatory tone, reassuring the protesters their message had been “received” and urging them to voice their views in a peaceful way.
But Gul is no stranger to controversy: his history of political Islam and the symbolism of his wife’s decision to wear a headscarf provoked widespread criticism when he was elected in 2007.
Pressed to respond to Gul’s softer remarks on the protests, Erdogan said he did not know what the president meant, “but for me, democracy comes from the ballot box”.
Long considered close political allies — Gul and Erdogan co-founded the governing Islamic-rooted party Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has won three successive elections since 2002 — the pair have toed a different line on several occasions in recent months, including on the issue of lifting immunity for Kurdish lawmakers.
Observers say their possible competing bids for the 2014 election, when voters will for the first time directly elect their president, will increasingly highlight their differences.
While neither has officially declared their candidacy, some experts expect incumbent Gul to seek a second term in 2014.
Populist Erdogan, whose popularity has grown with every election but whose party rules bar him from a fourth term as premier, is expected to try to boost the constitutional powers of the presidency before making his bid.
Experts believe he wants to continue his political career with a powerful executive presidency similar to that in the United States, rather than the current largely ceremonial one.
Erdogan is credited with bringing relative stability to Turkey after years of rocky coalition governments, building the country into a regional political and economic power.
He could count on the support of half the electorate in the last election but his zero-tolerance attitude to criticism and his tendency to use the courts to silence opponents have proven a major test for the country which has long sought to join the European Union.
Even as the race for the presidency has yet to be fought out in the open, the anti-government unrest that has brought thousands to the streets has already affected the chances of the would-be candidates, according to observers.
“Erdogan has been weakened by this crisis and his ascent to the post of president has been compromised,” journalist Deniz Zeyrek wrote in an editorial for the Radikal, a liberal daily.
Gul, on the other hand, “has consolidated his democratic image”, he added.