ISTANBUL — Turkey appears to be witnessing a new rivalry between its prime minister and president. Although both are founding members of Turkey's ruling party, increasingly the two men appear to be at odds with one another on a variety of political issues. The rivalry could have far-reaching consequences for the country.
The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, has in the past few months been challenging what is perceived as the increasingly tough positions of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whether on the treatment of the country’s Kurdish minority, imprisoned journalists or advocating membership in the European Union. Last month Erdogan voiced his frustration.
He said Turkey is not ruled by double-headed governance and he said the country will go nowhere with double-headed rule.
Yuksel Taskin, associate professor of politics at Marmara University, is an expert on the ruling AK party to which both men belong. He says President Gul is reacting to growing concern within the country by the increasingly tough stances of the prime minister.
"President Gul is trying to have a moderate image. Erdogan, his hard line image only creates sympathy in some nationalist circles, but the rest of the people are becoming increasingly skeptical of his leadership style, especially certain influential circles such as liberals circles, and the business community in the western parts of Turkey in particular," said Taskin.
Taskin says the prime minister's hardline stance is a bid to court nationalist’s votes in the 2014 presidential elections, in which he is widely expected to run. Erdogan has also made it clear he wants to turn Turkey into a presidential system, and to do that he will need the parliamentary votes of the Nationalist Action Party.
Asli Aydintasbas, a political commentator for the Turkish Sky News Channel, says Prime Minister Erdogan’s aspirations are another factor behind the growing rivalry between the prime minister and president.
"Gul is a candidate for the job of the prime minister, but not if Erdogan will go up to become a president and extends his powers so much that the prime minister will be just a figurehead. The way they are negotiating is through these roundabout statements and policy statements basically," said Aydintasbas.
Aydintasbas predicts the ongoing rivalry is likely to deepen. Speculation is now growing whether President Gul will challenge Erdogan in the 2014 presidential elections. Taskin of Marmara University says that is unlikely.
"I don’t think he will stand as a rival to Erdogan; he would lose. Supporters of Gul’s power in the party, in the AKP, has been broken down. They don’t exist in the party structure, so President Gul does not have a power base in the party," he said.
Observers point out that without a national political party, it would be extremely difficult for President Gul to run a presidential campaign in a country the size of Turkey against a charismatic campaigner like Erdogan. But some recent opinion polls indicate the president has a strong lead against Prime Minister Erdogan.
Kadri Gursel, political columnist for the newspaper Milliyet, says if the prime minister continues pursuing a hard line, the resulting divisions could give birth to a new powerful movement in Turkey that could re-elect Gul as president.
"Only a coalition of political and social forces can stop him [Erdogan]. If some fragments of existing political regroupings, coalitions would rally behind Gul and Gul would be happy with them, this can turn to be a new reform movement," said Gursel.
President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan have dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, and until now they have been powerful allies. But that alliance appears increasingly under strain, if it should break, observers say it will have far-reaching consequences for Turkish politics.