In a world where prominent politicians who actually have something interesting and substantive to contribute to their craft are few and far between, Abdullah Gül – presently the 11th President of Turkey – stands out as an exception to this powerful rule. Arguably more than anyone else, Gül has done the most to remould the Islamist movement in Turkey from a heavily ideological and socially distant sect to a mainstream political grouping which has enjoyed considerable electoral success in the last decade or so. Internationally, he has gained a reputation for probity, and his exhortations to fellow Organisation of Islamic Cooperation members to drastically improve their governance, gender policies and education levels – all, critically, within the context of a spiritual framework that is at least nominally respected within that body – are a paradigm of intellectual honesty.
Presently, however, Abdullah Gül faces an enormous dilemma: the Justice and Development Party, of which he was a key founding member and which despite formally leaving in 2007 is still closely identified with, is facing a genuine existential crisis as significant allegations of gross financial and legal corruption – which first began to gain traction last summer – threaten to turn Turkish politics upside down. With Gül’s second presidential term coming to an end later this year, he has three options before him if he wishes to continue his political career at the highest level – but none of them are perfect:
1. Stand for President Again. The 2014 Turkish presidential elections will be the first in which the general public – as opposed to parliament – will elect a person to this office. Gül stands as good a chance as any of winning the contest; however, under Turkey’s 1982 constitution, the presidency is little more than a symbolic position with limited leverage, and while a popularly-elected president will probably assume greater powers, there is no precise idea as to what these might be.
2. Go Back to Parliament. For a long time it was assumed that following the conclusion of his second term as President of Turkey, Gül would rejoin his former party and continue his work in the capacity of prime minister. However, this risks a clash with the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose popularity has plummeted in recent months to such an extent that it is difficult to see him realistically winning a presidential election. Given that Erdoğan has had the best part of seven years at the helm of the AKP, any attempts by Gül to get a serious foothold in his old home could be over before they have begun.
3. Start a New Party? The sheer scale of the corruption allegations means that the AKP – for the first time in its history – is not merely a controversial brand, but quite possibly a toxic one. Queries over millions of dollars being stashed in shoeboxes and the accumulation of vast amounts of money by senior politicians have already forced an unprecedented wave of resignations and have shattered what is left of the AKP’s ‘good governance’ image; the estimated seven million new voters aged between 18 and 23 who are being urged to cast their vote by the Oy Ver (‘Vote’) campaign are hardly likely to be overly-impressed by recent events. As arduous a task as this may be for somehow who is now a senior politician, Gül might be advised to start all over again with a new, centrist political initiative.