ISTANBUL — Turkish President Abdullah Gul has signed into law controversial legislation increasing the government’s power over the judiciary. Gul had faced calls to veto the law and had voiced concern about the direction Turkey is taking. Now some are saying the Turkish president is trying to avoid confrontation with the country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Gul ignored calls to veto a law that gives the government greater control over the judiciary. The legislation has been widely condemned as weakening the separation of powers in Turkey. It gives the Justice Ministry greater control over the independent body that appoints members of the judiciary.
Gul himself said the law violated the Turkish constitution. Briefing reporters ahead of his decision, however, he pointed out any veto would easily be overturned by parliament.
Criticism over signing
Soli Ozel, a political commentator for Haberturk TV, said the president still should have intervened.
"He can claim that he is a ceremonial position, but it is not just a ceremonial position: he is the head of state," Ozel said. "And, [in] my view, we are seeing a total assault on the Turkish state as it is presently constituted, and he is also the president of the republic and certainly he does not seem to be voicing the concerns of the public."
Earlier this month, Gul signed a law extending government control over the Internet. He said he convinced the government to reform some of the most controversial elements of that law.
Gul is a founding member of the ruling AK Party and has been a close ally of Erdogan. Even though the president has voiced concerns about the country’s direction, Asli Aydintasbas of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet said Gul will be careful to avoid a direct confrontation with the prime minister.
"Mr. Gul does not control the party, and him coming out and challenging Erdogan now, would effectively [end] his political career, I think. The prime minister is [a] very fierce street fighter and the president is not, and the prime minister would not shy away from using his power in media, as well as his political party machine, in attacking the president if he was to challenge him publicly," said Aydintasbas.
Eye on future office?
The president's term ends in August and he has not ruled out running for office again. Observers say he also may be considering becoming prime minister again if Erdogan is elected president.
Political commentator Ozel warns, though, that Gul’s public standing already may be damaged.
"Polls indicate his own approval rating has gone down either 10 or 17 percent, depending on the poll. And the reason for that is people are looking for leadership, and leadership is not something they see in the president," said Ozel.
But analysts say the president sees his future political fortunes tied to his standing in the ruling AK Party, and will be anxious to not be seen as disloyal to the party. Newspaper columnist Aydintasbas said the president will be watching key local elections next month, which the prime minister has declared a referendum on his rule.
"If he [Prime Minister Erdogan] has [a] good showing [at the] end of March, he is going to continue to fight. If things look lousy for AKP -- yes, there will be more calls for Gul to step in and play a mediating role and maybe assume greater responsibility. But all that depends on the local election results," said Aydintasbas.
A political commentator once described the president as a spider who waits for his prey to come to him, rather than hunting it. It is widely acknowledged he lacks the charisma of Prime Minster Erdogan, but observers say what he lacks in charisma is made up for in political acumen.