Is Turkey's President Playing Good Cop to Erdogan's Bad Cop?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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The political consequences of the recent violent protests in Turkey are beginning to emerge. They don't add up a Turkish Spring, but they are potentially significant.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan departed on a scheduled trip to North Africa. No sooner had he left than his stand-in, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, visited President Abdullah Gul. The two men announced an approach to the protests that was the opposite of Erdogan's. This may be an attempt to play good cop/bad cop to ease tensions, but the differences are real.

Erdogan has dismissed the protesters as politically motivated hoodlums with links to terrorists and ordered the intelligence services to look into possible connections with foreign powers. After meeting Gul, Arinc apologized for the brutality of the police response, said the concerns of the original protesters were "right and legitimate," and promised to meet with organizers.

While Erdogan had accused the opposition parties of stirring the protests to win a few votes, Gul invited the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party to the presidential palace. Erdogan had said he saw no reason to alter plans to redevelop Istanbul's Gezi Park that triggered the demonstrations, because the ruling Justice and Development Party won a mandate in the 2011 elections. Gul said pointedly that democracy is about more than just a vote every few years.

For the most part, the fear of Erdogan has cowed Turkey's media into playing down the protests. But outlets owned by the powerful, faith-based Fetullah Gulen movement have been openly critical of the police response. Gul is close to the Gulen movement.

Erdogan and Gul founded Justice and Development, but their ties have been fraying for some time. Erdogan made the first move before the 2011 elections, when he purged the party's slate of legislators who supported Gul and Arinc. Erdogan wanted to ensure support for his political priority: Securing amendments to the constitution that would change Turkey into a presidential republic. He would then be able to run for president and choose a prime minister, who might not be Gul. He wanted to make sure the party's new lawmakers would vote his way.

The protests have given Gul an opportunity to strike back and distinguish himself as the more conciliatory, less authoritarian and more pro-European choice. If the president is able to calm the protests before Erdogan returns in three days -- as the prime minister says he hopes -- Gul will get the credit.

If Gul can create a new coalition across the opposition parties, he would be a great choice to lead them and would provide a good change for Turkey. But don't count on it. The deep hostility between the ruling party and the opposition is no more than a reflection of divisions within the country, and the opposition has done very little to appear sensible or constructive.

Moreover, Erdogan isn't just a political bruiser. He is a force of nature, and has a genius for turning events to his advantage. The party was built and succeeded around Erdogan's popular appeal, not Gul's. The president knows it and so do the legislators who rode his coattails to power.

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To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net