Turkey's AKP Tells One of Its Own Not to Challenge Erdogan

(Bloomberg) -- Abdullah Gul, the former Turkish prime minister and president who stepped down from both those positions to allow Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take them, is being asked to step aside again.

In a frenzy of speculation about whether he’ll challenge Erdogan for the presidency at elections on June 24, Gul is coming under growing pressure from the governing party to rule himself out. The vote will seal the country’s transition to a supercharged executive presidency -- and effective one-man rule should Erdogan win -- from a parliamentary system.

Gul, who co-founded the Islamist-rooted AK Party with Erdogan in 2001, has more recently criticized Erdogan’s clampdown on dissent after a failed 2016 military coup, and has been effectively sidelined from politics. Another pro-Islamic party, Saadet, has suggested Gul run as an opposition candidate. Gul hasn’t commented publicly.

“When you leave an important political movement that you’ve been in for many years - or if you switch to another side - experience shows you may not be able to please either side,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Wednesday, in a reference to Gul. “People should preserve the respect they’ve gained.”

Erdogan ‘Saddened’

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the nationalist MHP that’s formed an election alliance with Erdogan, backed Yildirim on Thursday, saying the prime minister made “an important warning” and “Abdullah Gul should abide by it.” Sabah newspaper reported on Friday that Erdogan was “saddened" by rumors that Gul is considering a run.

Gul was AK Party’s first prime minister in late 2002, when Erdogan was still banned from politics on an earlier conviction of challenging the nation’s secular order. He stepped aside months later to allow Erdogan to take the job, after the ban was overturned by the AK-Party dominated parliament. Gul was also the movement’s first president, but again stepped down after a single term when Erdogan decided to run for the position in 2014.

Opposition Unprepared

Opposition parties were caught off guard when Erdogan called snap elections last week, advancing both presidential and parliamentary polls to this June from November 2019. They’re now frantically debating how best to challenge the president, who’s looking to cap nearly 16 years at the pinnacle of Turkish power.

If opinion polls can be trusted, they have a lot of ground to make up. A recent poll showed Erdogan with 43.5 percent support, more than double his nearest challenger. But to secure a first-round win, he needs a minimum of 50 percent of the vote. Any split within the ranks of the AK Party -- for example with a Gul candidacy -- would make it even harder to avoid a second-round, run-off vote. Gul received just over 5 percent in the survey.

Under the new system to be implemented after the June vote, the president will have the power to appoint ministers and judges, set the nation’s budget and declare a state of emergency. The prime minister’s job will be abolished.

Islamists Split

Saadet, the Islamist opposition party, has so far failed to convince the secularist CHP and newly-formed nationalist spin-off Iyi Party to back Gul, with both parties insisting they’ll field their own candidates. The pro-Kurdish HDP, whose leadership is in jail, also says it’ll run its own candidate.

Saadet won less than 1 percent of the vote in 2015 parliamentary elections. In an interview on Tuesday with Bloomberg, its leader Temel Karamollaoglu accused Erdogan of betraying the Islamic values of most Turks. Erdogan has “departed from our principles in every way, on poverty, corruption and restrictions,” Karamollaoglu said.

As prime minister from 2003 until 2014, Erdogan offered Turkey respite from the revolving-door coalitions that had characterized the 1990s, and used his mandates to attract unprecedented amounts of foreign investment and energize Turkey’s economy. But his later administrations, as well as his time in the president’s office since 2014, have been characterized just as much by charges of corruption and criticism for creeping authoritarianism. Turkey has also gotten pulled deeper into the war in neighboring Syria, where its army has been battling Syrian Kurdish militants.

Still, the apparent nervousness of Erdogan and his team about a possible Gul candidacy is probably overblown, according to Anthony Skinner, a director at U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft. “The incumbent has always had the vote in the bag irrespective of when the polls are held,” Skinner said

“All their strength is being used not to try to rule Turkey, but just to pour out their hostility against me and AK Party,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Friday. “Whatever conspiracies you may be plotting, God willing, you’ll fail again.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.