Former Turkish president Abdullah Gül gave an interview to the Turkish daily Karar in which he endorsed Turkish politician Ali Babacan, who is forming a new political party. Before 2009, Babacan was at various times the foreign minister, finance minister, and EU accession chief negotiator for the ruling AKP. From 2009-2015 he was a deputy prime minister. Gül has been president, prime minister, deputy prime minister, and foreign minister of Turkey. Both Babacan and Gül were founding members of the AKP.
Rather than presenting the stance of an opposition party, the position Gül articulated resembles that of a faction of the AKP, expressing many of the same principles in a nicer way. He makes vague criticisms, echoes AKP rhetoric, and keeps open the option of friendly relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP.
In view of worsening Turkey-U.S. relations in recent years as well as the increasingly authoritarian and Islamist policies that the AKP has applied domestically, new political alternatives, such as the party that former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently formed, or the anticipated party led by Babacan and now endorsed by Gül, are sometimes viewed as a hope for a future Turkish government that will apply more democratic policies.
Indeed, in this interview, Gül said of Turkish foreign policy: "For Turkey to be a democratic and pluralistic country, it needs to be in a Western block alongside Europe." He said of the hundreds of thousands of arrests in Turkey in the years following the July 2016 attempted coup: "Great injustices are happening... There are especially some cases concerning the print media, civil society organizations, and politicians. Even the constitutional court finds these to be wrong." He exppressed his opposition to the transition of the Turkish government in recent years from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, in which the president has more power, saying: "I said that there should not be a Turkish-style presidential system. I favor an entirely democratic parliamentary system." He said: "Turkey must get on a path that promotes freedom."
However, these vague statements lack the specific criticism heard from Turkish politicians and journalists who more seriously oppose the AKP and favor democratic policies. Alongside these statements, much of what Gül said was in line with AKP policy and rhetoric. He said: "The errors and sins of the West cannot be counted... In the event that [Turkey] came to an overall understanding with all of its institutions and the public, within the framework of that understanding it can leave NATO." He said of the July 2016 attempted coup: "It would be a great naivete to think that it was outside the knowledge of at least the U.S.'s security and intelligence institutions. This is not possible." In this way, he implied that the U.S. had advance knowledge of the attempted coup and indirectly blamed the U.S. for not at least warning President Erdoğan about it.
Regarding the AKP, Gül said: "I believe that the founding principles and values of the AKP are still very true and valid for Turkey." He cited the Ottoman Empire in demonstrating the parliamentary tradition in Turkey: "Before the Republic of Turkey was founded, the Ottoman State set up ballot boxes in Yemen and had elections. It had its Chamber of Deputies." He expressed his continued hopes for political Islam: "When political movements with Islamic identities are democratic and promote freedom, as long as they take ownership of and apply basic human rights in the universal sense, they will do good governance when they come to power. We gave an example of this in our first period and we displayed how religious people can manage the administration of the state according to rational principles."
President Erdoğan, left, sitting with former president Gül (source: Birgun.net).
Gül discussed other topics in the interview, including: the recent violence in Idlib; Turkey-Egypt relations and the Mediterranean Sea; Turkey-Russia relations; the Turkish military; and the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Gül spoke to Karar writers Ahmet Taşgetiren, Elif Çakır, and Yıldıray Oğur and the interview was published on February 18, 2020.
Following are translated excerpts from Gül's interview.
Turkey-Russia "Relations Have Gone Out Of Proportion A Little... I Am Of The Opinion That The [S-400] Issue Was Not Handled Correctly"
Regarding the recent violence between the Turkish and Syrian militaries in Idlib, Gül said: "Though we may be provoked, I would say that we should not enter a wholesale war with Syria." Asked what went wrong with Turkey's Syria policy, he said: "Russia and Iran's support for the regime was taken lightly."
Gül said of the Mediterranean Sea and Turkey's relationship with Egypt: "The Mediterranean can be thought of as an apple, and Turkey and Egypt are its two halves. For this reason, Turkey-Egypt relations are handled with much greater care than day-to-day issues. They have a very important position from the perspective of the two nations' interests... I hope that, with good sense, a path will be found to bring the relations to the place where they should be."
First describing Turkey and Russia's historical relationship, Gül commented on current Turkey-Russia relations, saying: "For Turkey to be a democratic and pluralistic country, it needs to be in a Western block alongside Europe... It would not be suitable for Turkey to be Russia's enemy, nor for it to be snatched up by it. Recently, the relations have gone out of proportion a little in this way. In particular, the S-400 issue, in the military field, is maybe the most critical example. Because all the standards of the Turkish armed forces... the air force and the land forces, everything is according to NATO standards. Actually, the effectiveness of the power of the Turkish armed forces comes from that... From this perspective, to be frank, I am of the opinion that the issue was not handled correctly. Because soldiers and diplomats should have seen that a country would have the S-400 on the one hand, and on the other hand would not have the advanced planes with which to by-pass these weapons systems. Turkey's F-35 issue is a matter that concerns the future strength of our air force."
"In The Event That [Turkey] Came To An Overall Understanding With All Of Its Institutions And The Public... It Can Leave NATO"
Concerning the foreign policy of the U.S. and European countries, including the policy of arming Kurdish forces in Syria, he said: "The errors and sins of the West cannot be counted. But in the end, if a decision is made, not with anger and rage, but after doing an accounting, that is a different matter. In fact, Turkey as a whole can make such an evaluation that it believes is better for its interests, and in the event that it came to an overall understanding with all of its institutions and the public, within the framework of that understanding it can leave NATO."
Of Turkish "hard power" and "soft power," he said: "Hard power exists for deterrence. Of course, the strength of the military makes us all proud. But a strong military does not exist so we can go to war, but as a deterrent. It is for preventing war... Turkey's frequent use of its hard power will decrease its deterrence. Instead, Turkey should use its soft power. But soft power begins in its own house. First one must put one's own house in order. This reflects strongly outward."
Regarding the polarizing domestic politics in Turkey, he said: "Unfortunately, politics in Turkey is done in an exclusionary manner. Whereas if politics is inclusive, if it engages everyone, if it includes everyone and is centered on dialogue and reconciliation, then a more peaceful politics will appear. I said dozens of times when I was president that this polarizing politics was a big threat to Turkey."
"Of Course I Support [Ali Babacan's Party] – I Trust And Admire Mr. Ali's Character, Education, Knowledge, And Political Method"
Asked about the new political parties being formed by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, Gül said: "When I left the presidency, I said that I would no longer be active in politics. I try to be consistent. For this reason I am not involved in day-to-day politics. However, when there are burning matters of the country at hand, it cannot be expected that I would hide my experience for myself. It is my right and my duty to share my views and contribute to politics in a way that benefits my country on fundamental matters. When Mr. Ali [Babacan] was setting up the party, he would inform the public as necessary and talk with me from time to time." When asked whether he supports the party, he said: "Of course I support it. I trust and admire Mr. Ali's character, education, knowledge, and political method."
Concerning the AKP, he said: "I believe that the founding principles and values of the AKP are still very true and valid for Turkey." Yıldıray Oğur asked: "You said that you are outside of politics, and that you make reccomendations to Mr. Ali. What do you recommend to these new parties as one of the founders of the AKP, what needs to be done first?" Gül answered: "Turkey must get on a path that promotes freedom. A path that purely promotes security will force you to take precaution on top of precaution... There are especially some cases concernning the print media, civil society organizations, and politicians. Even the constitutional court finds these to be wrong. These can be fixed very rapidly, and a burden will be taken off of Turkey."
"It Would Be A Great Naivete To Think That [The July 2016 Attempted Coup] Was Outside The Knowledge Of At Least The U.S.'s Security And Intelligence Institutions"
Elif Çakır asked: "Of course it is no longer only a matter of security. There have been hundreds of thousands of arrests... Serious judicial problems have come to light. Are you seeing this unjust treatment, what do you think about this? To even say these things means to consider [receiving] accusations." Gül answered: "Of course you are very right. There are examples from some who are very close to us, who have no relationship to this group or who from the beginning have been reacting to it. For this reason the matter of justice is very important... Great injustices are happening. There can be no collective punishment neither in a modern democracy nor in our understanding... I am seeing that every segment of society is facing great injustices and pain."
Concerning U.S. involvement in the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Gül said: "Those in charge of this matter have been in the U.S. for a long time. It would be a great naivete to think that it was outside the knowledge of at least the U.S.'s security and intelligence institutions. This is not possible."
"I Said That There Should Not Be A Turkish-Style Presidential System – I Favor An Entirely Democratic Parliamentary System"
On Turkey's transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government, he said: "Even when I was president, I said that a parliamentary system was better for Turkey. In fact, I expressed many times as president that for my authorities to be decreased would be more suitable for a democratic system... I said that there should not be a Turkish-style presidential system. I favor an entirely democratic parliamentary system... Before the Republic of Turkey was founded, the Ottoman State set up ballot boxes in Yemen and had elections. It had its Chamber of Deputies. The tradition of the parliament existed before the [founding of the] Republic... The Grand National Assembly of Turkey has, up to today, never been so unimportant. Turkey is feeling this deficiency.
Of the Gezi Park protests, he said: "The answer that I gave to the first question I was asked was: 'I am very proud of this.' Everyone was surprised. I said: 'We have changed the nature of Turkey's problems. In the past people would go out in the streets over human rights. They would go out [in the streets] so that the unsolved crimes would stop. They would go out in the streets so the corruption would stop. Now people go out in the streets so that a tree will not be cut down, for environmental sensitivity. We turned Turkey's problems into the problems of the U.K. and the U.S.'"
Yıldıray Oğur said: "The experience of the AKP, the experience of religious people and Islamic movements coming together with democracy was a model for the countries of the Islamic world and Islamic movements." Gül responded: "What you have said is very true. This is one of the subjects to which I also give the most importance. For religious people and political movements to be able to promote freedom is a subject of extraordinary importance. When political movements with Islamic identities are democratic and promote freedom, as long as they take ownership of and apply basic human rights in the universal sense, they will do good governance when they come to power. We gave an example of this in our first period and we displayed how religious people can manage the state according to rational principles. This success was, for a period, a source of inspiration to the Islamic world and to Islamic movements. Now there are many arguments about the collapse of political Islam."
 Karar.com/guncel-haberler/abdullah-gul-parlamenter-sisteme-donmek-sart-1478730, February 18, 2020.