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Turkey's moderate president bows out - for now

2014-08-26 09:13

Ankara - Turkey's president Abdullah Gul moves out of the presidential palace in Ankara on Thursday an isolated figure, frozen out of the new government, with his wife Hayrunnisa complaining bitterly of smears against her husband.

But few believe he will go quietly into the political wilderness, never to return.

Gul's undoubted political stature means that he will remain a potential force should the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffer splits and lose popularity in the future.

Gul, 63, co-founded the AKP with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his successor as head of state and for much of the last decade his political blood brother.

But in recent months the growing split between Turkey's two best known political figures has become all too apparent, with Gul becoming a focus for those tired of Erdogan's authoritarian streak.

Gul had broken ranks with Erdogan, notably by criticising the policing of mass protests in 2013 that rocked the government.

Turkish law

He has also promoted better ties with the West and did not share Erdogan's disappointment over the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt.

But a day after Erdogan won an outright victory in the August 10 presidential vote, Gul brushed aside speculation that he might join a new political movement and said it was "only natural for me to return to my party".

In line with Turkish law which states the president should be politically neutral, Gul severed all his ties with the AKP while in office.

The question is whether Gul will use his influence to press for change within the AKP after what many see as the deliberate humiliations he was subjected to at the end of his term.

In a farewell address broadcast on Monday, Gul said he had always maintained "neutrality" as president, in carefully-worded remarks some saw as a veiled dig at Erdogan's plans for a more politically engaged presidency.

"I stressed the importance of separation of powers and of a checks and balances system for our democracy," Gul said, insisting that a head of state needed to "show utmost care to the requirements of being a democratic, secular and social state".

'2015 polls critical test'

Gul had the door slammed shut on his chances of becoming premier after the party decided to hold a congress to arrange the succession on Wednesday - the day before Erdogan is set to be inaugurated, meaning Gul will not be able to take part.

"There is no doubt that the decision to have a congress on 27 August was made with the goal of keeping Gul from a powerful position in the party," said Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"I believe Gul will continue his struggle within the party," he told AFP.

But analysts said Gul would likely sit on the sidelines for now and would re-emerge only if the AKP starts to show weakness and Erdogan loses popularity in his project to build a "new Turkey".

"Gul is unlikely to go into a war which he cannot win," said Deniz Zeyrek, Ankara bureau chief of mass-circulation Hurriyet daily.

Critical test

"I don't think he will come into play as long as the AKP remains successful," he told AFP.

Gul has himself hinted that he does not intend to return to frontline politics, saying: "I will move to Istanbul. I will continue to work for Turkey's success. I will behave how someone who served as president behaves."

Erdogan wants his party to press for a new constitution to expand the president's powers but this will require a two-thirds majority in the parliament in the next general election in 2015.

Zeyrek said the 2015 poll would be a "critical test" for the party which will determine Gul's fate.

"If the new team fails, then the seniors of the AKP could make an appeal for Gul's comeback as party leader," he said.

'Victim of disloyalty'

Gul has always shown unstinting public loyalty to Erdogan, keeping the prime minister's seat warm for him when the AKP first came to power in 2002.

Taking the party to a landslide election victory in its first election, Erdogan could not be appointed prime minister after a jail stint for reciting an Islamic-motivated poem.

Gul briefly held the post in his place before handing it over without a murmur when Erdogan was allowed to take the job.

Columnist Cengiz Candar wrote that Gul was not a man that can be sidelined and claimed the AKP's "disloyalty" to him generated questions about the values of Erdogan's "new Turkey".

While Gul has maintained a dignified silence, his wife Hayrunnisa has been explicit in criticising those she believed had wronged her husband.

"Abdullah Bey cannot say it out of courtesy. He was subjected to many falsehoods, and a great deal of disrespect," she said.

AFP
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