“There has been debate over the collapse of political Islam. It is true, it is happening everywhere in the world.”

With this statement that came after a long period of silence, Abdullah Gül publicly declared his divorce from Turkey’s president and the party the two founded almost two decades ago. In an 18 February interview with daily Karar, the former president criticized the deviation of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from its path and basic principles and called for a return to the parliamentary system in order to repair the damage.

More than just breaking ranks with the AKP line and diagnosing the universal failure of political Islam, Gül also used the interview to express his pride in the Gezi protests of 2013, by saying that the cause of anti-government protestors opposed to plans to destroy Gezi Park – one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces – was a just one.

The discomfort that these critical comments triggered among the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle was soon given voice. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said he felt stabbed with Gül’s statement that the latter was proud of the Gezi movement, while presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said “the damage caused by Gezi should not be forgotten”. 

It was not just senior figures in the AKP who objected to Gül’s claims; another party exile seeking to challenge the ruling party also took issue. Ahmet Davutoğlu, former prime minister and the leader of the newly founded Future Party, charged Gül with “Orientalism” for the latter’s declaration of the death of Islamist politics. 

As Gül puts distance between himself and his former political colleagues, he has also been linked to the formation of a new party under the leadership of former Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan. Though the launch of the party has been delayed several times in recent months, the as yet unnamed bloc is said to be set to adopt a liberal line, without an emphasis on Muslim identity. According to both Babacan and Gül, such a stance is more like the original AKP than its current incarnation.

The Babacan Party, as it is referred to by the media for want of an appropriate name, will be the second of its kind after Davutoğlu’s Future Party. Both parties appear to be setting out their stall to preach democratic rights and a parliamentary system of government as opposed to the current presidential system and they are expected to drain away some of the ruling party’s electoral support with their claims of being the “real” AKP.

The fire that Gül has recently come under is not unfamiliar, since he received worse treatment at least twice before, in 2007 and 2018, when he stood or considered standing for presidency. 

Portrait of a young man as a political Islamist

Abdullah Gül is an experienced politician, coming from a background of Islamist activism since the late 1960s. He studied economics at the Istanbul University, where he became known as the leader of the nationalist-Islamist militants. Following his graduation, Gül went to the UK for postgraduate studies at Exeter University, for which he was sponsored by a conservative foundation. After receiving his PhD from Istanbul University, Gül worked for the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia between 1983 and 1991, when he returned to Turkey to be elected as parliamentary deputy for the central Anatolian province of Kayseri from the list of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party (RP). He would be re-elected as Kayseri deputy until 2007, when he became Turkey’s first Islamist president. 

Gül collaborated with Erdoğan to lead the modernist camp in the Islamist movement following the 28 February 1997 military intervention (a.k.a. postmodern coup) that toppled the RP led coalition. They split from the founding leader Necmettin Erbakan’s “national outlook” line and initiated the establishment of the AKP as a party modelled after Germany’s Christian Democrats. They foresaw a party of believers regarding the cadres and constituency that comply with the secular political system as a conservative democrat party, which was widely referred to as “moderate Islamism”. Gül’s reference to this break in late 1990s appears in the daily Karar interview as follows: “Back at that time we have foreseen the failure of political Islam and realized our break with that paradigm, but it could not be sustained.” 

The presidential hot potato

Following the landslide victory in November 2002 elections, Gül headed the first AKP cabinet as prime minister, as Erdoğan was banned from politics at the time. Ban served, Erdoğan took over as prime minister in 2003, with Gül serving as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.

In 2007, Abdullah Gül became the AKP’s presidential candidate amid strong opposition from secularist press, public and politicians. This opposition was supported by a statement issued on line – known as the “e-memorandum” – by the Turkish General Staff expressing the military’s determination to defend secularism.The AKP, instead of stepping back, met the challenge and called snap elections for July that year, which would give the party another landslide victory and assured Gül’s presidency. Abdullah Gül, thus survived the most serious existential challenge of his life thus far. 

Gül’s performance as a president came under criticism from the opposition for his approval of every legislation proposed by the ruling AKP, including restrictive measures indicating an authoritarian Islamist line being gradually adopted by the then Prime Minister Erdoğan. After the completion of his seven-year term as head of state, Gül returned to the AKP but could not stay in the party for long. The new president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had blocked Gül’s possible moves towards a top position by bringing Ahmet Davutoğlu to the head of the party and making him the new prime minister. 

After a long silence, Abdullah Gül’s name was being spoken of as the presidential candidate for the opposition prior to the 2018 elections. This prospect was evidently abandoned with a visit by the then Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar and the president’s advisor Ibrahim Kalin to his residence in Istanbul. The two men of power, who landed in Gül’s backyard with a helicopter, spoke to him for three hours. Later, Gül announced that he would not stand in the presidential election because the opposition parties had not agreed on his name as their common candidate. By stepping back, Abdullah Gül probably survived the second existential challenge of his life. 

The current reactions from the Erdoğan’s court to Gül’s statements in the recent interview with Karar seem to be heralding the third existential challenge in his political career. The formation of a new party under Babacan’s leadership and the prospect of Gül becoming its presidential candidate in 2023 seem to have rung alarm bells in the palace. However, the recurring delays in the launching of Babacan’s party have been interpreted as resulting from Gül’s reluctance under immense pressure from “all the president’s men”.

A remorseful sinner or another brick in the wall?

The fact that Gül eventually agreed to speak to the press, on the other hand, may be indicating his self confidence and determination this time. In the Karar interview, he declared his support for Babacan, the prospective leader of the new party, and emphasized his preference to return to the parliamentary system as opposed to the current presidential system a la turca: “We had been ruled with a Turkish-type parliamentary system, where there were tutelage and shadow cabinets. We, therefore, should not have a Turkish-type presidential system”.

The problem, therefore, is the transition from a parliamentary system peculiar to Turkey, with the real power resting in the military/bureaucratic elites, to a Turkish style presidential system where all power is concentrated in the hands of one person. Gül opposes this transition on behalf of a parliamentary system free of tutelage. He says that Babacan’s party, which he endorses, abandoned Islamism in favour of a liberal democratic agenda, as the idea of political Islam collapsed around the world. In his words, “political movements with Islamic identity can rule only when they become liberal and democratic, respecting human rights.”

Interestingly, Gül repeated his comments from back in 2013 about Gezi protests, that he was proud of the action, on the very day of that an Istanbul court ruled for the acquittal in a long running trial of defendants accused of planning the protests as a means to overthrow the Erdoğan government. This is probably the rationale behind Yiğit Bulut, an aide to the president, linking Gül’s interview with the recent rumours about the preparations of a military coup, in which Bulut labelled Gül as “the rose of the Queen”, meaning, he was speaking on behalf of the British state.

With his newly acquired profile of a repentant political Islamist, Abdullah Gül may this time have the courage to meet the challenge from the palace but there is much more that requires self-criticism, since he was by no means an outsider of the AKP circle of power. He held top positions during the first decade of AKP’s rule when restrictions on rights and liberties were imposed along with official interventions into the educational system and secular lifestyle of the citizens with an Islamist agenda. With these moves the foundations of an authoritarian Islamist rule were elaborately laid, over which what now Gül criticizes as “the presidential system a la turca” has been built.