Ab­dul­lah Gül’s choice

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Many his­to­ri­ans and econ­o­mists in­sist that we live in an age shaped by vast and im­per­sonal forces. The ac­tions and de­ci­sions of one man or woman, no mat­ter how pow­er­ful, can­not de­ter­mine the des­tiny of na­tions. This may be true much or most of the time. But there are mo­ments when an in­di­vid­ual leader’s choices can change the course of history. That has cer­tainly been true in Rus­sia, and it may soon turn out to be true in Tur­key as well.

In Rus­sia, the very ex­is­tence of the regime con­structed by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin can be traced to a sin­gle de­ci­sion taken by a sin­gle man, Boris Yeltsin, for purely per­sonal rea­sons. As Yeltsin pre­pared to stand down as Rus­sia’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent, he sought a suc­ces­sor who would pro­tect his per­sonal safety and wealth, and that of his fam­ily, in his dotage. Putin, the gray ex-KGB man, seemed much bet­ter equipped to fill that role than more demo­crat­i­cally in­clined fig­ures like, say, Sergei Stepashin, another of Yeltsin’s prime min­is­ters, who had showed lit­tle en­thu­si­asm for the First Chechen War in 1994.

Yeltsin’s choice may have fit his per­sonal agenda, but it con­signed Rus­sia to a re­turn to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. In a sense, then, Yeltsin was re­spon­si­ble both for open­ing Rus­sia to a demo­cratic fu­ture and for clos­ing that chap­ter in the coun­try’s history.

Tur­key’s fu­ture, too, is now seem­ingly in the hands of one man: for­mer Pres­i­dent Ab­dul­lah Gül. With Turk­ish vot­ers headed to the polls on Novem­ber 1 for the coun­try’s sec­ond gen­eral elec­tion this year, Gül must de­cide whether to stand be­hind Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. His choice may de­ter­mine whether Tur­key re­mains on a demo­cratic path or veers to­ward a fu­ture shaped by Er­do­gan’s own brand of Pu­tin­ism.

Gül has been placed in this crit­i­cal po­si­tion be­cause, in the last elec­tion, held in June, Er­do­gan’s rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP) failed to win a gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity, much less the con­sti­tu­tional ma­jor­ity that would en­able Er­do­gan to trans­form Tur­key’s par­lia­men­tary sys­tem into a pres­i­den­tial one.

Af­ter the elec­tion, the AKP went through the mo­tions of seek­ing to forge a coali­tion that could form a gov­ern­ment – an ef­fort that many spec­u­late Er­do­gan sab­o­taged, so that he could call new elec­tions. Now that new elec­tions have been called, Er­do­gan is us­ing na­tion­al­ist ap­peals, and even the sug­ges­tion of ac­tual war against a na­tional mi­nor­ity, the Kurds, to pro­pel his party to vic­tory. This rhetoric is rem­i­nis­cent of Putin’s bel­li­cose stance dur­ing the Sec­ond Chechen War in 1999, which boosted his pop­u­lar­ity con­sid­er­ably, help­ing to make him a vi­able con­tender to suc­ceed Yeltsin.

Er­do­gan once claimed that democ­racy is “like a train,” in that “when you reach your des­ti­na­tion, you get off” – a sim­ile with which Putin would un­doubt­edly agree. For both lead­ers, demo­cratic sys­tems are lit­tle more than blunt tools that can be used to ad­vance one’s per­sonal am­bi­tions, and then dis­carded at will.

But there is one big dif­fer­ence be­tween Putin and Er­do­gan. Once Yeltsin was out of the way, Putin was de­pen­dent on no other fig­ure; he was master of the Krem­lin, the ul­ti­mate ar­biter of dis­putes among the ri­val fig­ures and clans of the post-Soviet Rus­sian elite. Er­do­gan, by con­trast, had a part­ner in form­ing the AKP: Gül. And Gül, un­like Yeltsin, has re­tained a pow­er­ful and loyal po­lit­i­cal fol­low­ing since leav­ing of­fice.

When the AKP – which ad­vo­cated a mod­er­ate form of Is­lamist pol­i­tics that chal­lenged the sec­u­lar­ism that had pre­vailed since mod­ern Tur­key’s found­ing – won its first elec­tion in 2002, it was Gül who served as Prime Min­is­ter, be­cause Er­do­gan was banned from hold­ing po­lit­i­cal of­fice at the time. The eco­nomic re­forms and other lib­er­al­is­ing mea­sures un­der­taken un­der Gül’s lead­er­ship led many peo­ple to be­lieve that the AKP was cre­at­ing a form of Is­lamist pol­i­tics akin to that of Euro­pean Chris­tian Democ­racy.

But when Er­do­gan took over as Prime Min­is­ter in 2003, Gül was ef­fec­tively shunted into the shad­ows (Tur­key’s pres­i­dency at the time was a largely cer­e­mo­nial of­fice). And as Er­do­gan, like Putin, con­cen­trated power in his own hands, Gül’s so­cial and eco­nomic achieve­ments be­gan to be dis­man­tled. No one speaks of the AKP any­more as a model for Mus­lim democrats to fol­low. And, in­deed, many se­nior AKP mem­bers who helped Gül’s gov­ern­ment to suc­ceed have left – or been driven from – the party.

In his book Pro­files in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote that, in pol­i­tics, there comes a mo­ment when “a man must do what he must – in spite of per­sonal con­se­quences, in spite of ob­sta­cles and dan­gers, and pres­sures.” For Gül, that mo­ment is now.

Gül can re­main silent and watch his for­mer friend and po­lit­i­cal part­ner fol­low in Putin’s au­thor­i­tar­ian foot­steps, mak­ing a mock­ery of his own ef­forts to show the world that Is­lam can co­ex­ist with democ­racy, moder­nity, and tol­er­ance. Or he can speak out against Er­do­gan’s plans, thereby help­ing to pre­serve his life’s work and, even more im­por­tant, his coun­try’s demo­cratic sys­tem. Such a pro­file in courage is pre­cisely what Tur­key needs to­day.

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