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Erdoğan-Gülen tension bubbles to the surface again?

May 13, 2013

A new episode in the covert Erdoğan-Gülen power struggle bubbled quietly to the surface last week. The fault line was apparently once again Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to change Turkey to a presidential political system. I was alerted to this latest possible rift by the May 9 front page of arch-secularist Cumhuriyet, which brandished two recent pieces of evidence: The first was veiled criticism issued by influential U.S.-based religious preacher Fethullah Gülen, broadcast recently on the major Gülenist television station Samanyolu; the second was a column published in the Gülen-affiliated newspaper Zaman, written by “Gülen mouthpiece” Hüseyin Gülerce.

According to the Cumhuriyet article, titled “Heavy hints from Gülen to Erdoğan,” Gülen suggested the following in a recent Samanyolu broadcast:

“Sometimes power makes a person arrogant. Even if they are a believer, they may morally be a pharaoh … Sometimes, blessings constantly pour from above and in that way a person can become a Nimrod, or a pharaoh … An ordinary person can arrive, take advantage of certain possibilities, and is able to sit at the helm of power. But after being at the helm for a while, he may come to lose respect for those who he has brought so far in the vehicle. He may always look at the people from on high, telling them ‘stay in your place.’ If others say anything, he may reply with something like, ‘Shut up. You don’t understand this business. Whatever I say goes.’”

Cumhuriyet linked these cryptic words to an equally cryptic column by Hüseyin Gülerce, published in the Turkish and English language versions of Zaman on May 7 and 8. In it, Gülerce wrote about the possible changes to the political system, and appeared to advise against Erdoğan putting himself forward as a candidate for either a newly-empowered executive presidential chair, or a party-affiliated one:

“The impression that the AK Party negotiated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in return for the presidential system cannot be fixed … It does not seem possible for the AK Party to convince the people and other stakeholders that the presidential or semi-presidential system is the best option after all these developments.

“The only thing the AK Party will insist on at this point is a partisan president … [But] a surprise move … may be that the prime minister does not run for the presidency. The prime minister has not so far publicly announced that he will run for the presidency. There will be no need for a partisan president in the event that he does not become a candidate in the election.”

Of course, tension between the Gülen movement and Erdoğan has long been speculated on. In a smart recent piece for Turkey Analyst, Svante E. Cornell suggested that growing numbers within the movement are switching their allegiances to current President Abdullah Gül, frustrated at Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian and personality-driven political style. Still, it’s striking that the issue is considered such a taboo that it is rarely mentioned openly in the mainstream Turkish media. An issue of such significance to the country’s political future is therefore discussed only through whispers, rumours and conjecture. Whatever truth comes from such speculation, smoke and mirrors certainly don’t help ease concerns about the movement’s lack of transparency, or its “hidden agenda.”

In another plot twist, the vice president of the Gülen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation, Cemal Usak, recently suggested that Gülen “may return to Turkey” if a “civil and democratic constitution” is adopted. Whatever that means in the grand scheme of things, it seems likely that heads will continue to be scratched over the whole issue for a while yet.

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