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Abdullah Gul, the AKP dove back in Turkish spotlight

Turkey's former president seen as healer of damage caused by internal fighting and hawkish successor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Gul stepped aside after Erdogan's presidential power play (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The AKP party should be at the peak of its powers. It has muted political opponents, strengthened its grip on parliament, and created a super presidency for its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Yet despite this imperious position, its reputation has never been so tarnished. Having accumulated all the power, Erdogan has marginalised factions within his own party. The April referendum on switching to an executive presidency was won on a narrow majority as urban AKP supporters turned their backs. 

Erdogan's confrontational manner now almost exclusively informs Turkey's official domestic and international policies, and when things go wrong, as they have, he has no one left to take the blame. 

Erdogan promises to defeat 'scum' after returning to AKP
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A divided party. A disillusioned urban electorate. Distrust of the president. These are problems Erdogan must fix as he heads into the 2019 elections which, if he wins, will secure him the new "super presidency".

There are whispers in the corridors of power that the president and his allies are seeking a truce with those AKP politicians previously considered threats.

One of those is Abdullah Gul, Erdogan's predecessor and co-founder of the party, who many see as the ideal person to restore the party's image.

The first public sign of such a truce could come on 14 August as the AKP commemorates its 16th anniversary at the Wonderland theme park near Ankara.

A Yes campaigner in the Turkish referendum. Erdogan won, but the vote split the electorate (AFP)

'Companions on the journey'

"All those who haven't turned their backs on the party" will be invited, according to party sources.

The list includes shunned AKP stalwarts now being called "companions on the journey" such as Gul, Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime minister, Bulent Arinc, a former deputy prime minister, and Huseyin Celik and Sadullah Ergin, both former ministers, among others.

Erdogan's message is expected to focus on reconciliation and the 2019 elections, one for the presidency and the other a general election.

He is expected to emphasise the "traditions that have made it the people's party" and stress that the AKP is a "loyalty movement".

Reports suggest that Erdogan will call Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Gul and Davutoglu to stand on the stage next to him and salute the crowd.    

Gul was pushed to the sidelines during Erdogan's rise, and did little to push back. He could have run for another term but Erdogan had set his sights on that office, and Gul instead announced he would not participate in active politics once his term was up.

What future for the Erdogan-AKP dynamic? 
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But he never completely shut the door on a return either. 

The well-mannered, soft-spoken, consensus-seeking Gul is a perfect counterfoil to the current standard practice of name-calling and labelling as "terrorist" anyone who disagrees with the party line.

Gul has served as prime minister, foreign minister and president.

Both internationally and at home he came to be regarded as a statesman who rose above being a mere politician.

He was a central figure in the AKP during the years when the party focused on reforms and placed citizens above the state.

Abdullah Gul with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud in Mecca in 2012 (AFP)

Internationally he excelled at promoting a relationship between Turkey and the world where Ankara's democratic-minded reforms focused on improving citizen rights.

He looked to strengthen ties between Turkey's allies in the West, and open a new chapter in its ties with the Middle East, which Ankara had put on the back-burner for decades.

Eight years spent in Saudi Arabia working as an economist at the Islamic Development Bank and his own personal faith convinced him of Turkey's need to re-establish ties with the region.

Domestically he was appreciated by supporters and foes, albeit grudgingly by the latter, for seeking inclusionary and consensus-based politics without ever hiding his Islamist leanings.

Reforms cannot be deep-rooted if carried out in a climate of polarisation

- Abdullah Gul, former president

Gul's oft-repeated mantra was "reforms cannot be deep-rooted if carried out in a climate of polarisation".

His composed and calm stance when the then secularist-dominated establishment, including the military, opposed his candidacy for president in 2007 for personal rather than competency reasons was to his credit.

Gul's candidacy was opposed because of his roots in the Islamist National View movement and because his wife, Hayrunnisa, wore a head scarf.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul in 2013 (AFP)

The AKP backed him and called for early elections which it comfortably won by an even bigger margin than before. Then it had Gul elected president in a parliamentary vote in August 2007.

Not only was Gul a charming politician, but one of a handful of equals with Erdogan who had the courage to disagree and oppose him when the situation warranted.

Few, if any, such people are left in the AKP now.

It was Gul's reaction to the anti-government nationwide Gezi Park protests in 2013 that even earned him the opposition's applause. The same opposition that prior to that was calling him Erdogan's yes man in the presidency.

Gul, then president, openly disagreed with Erdogan, the prime minister, and said the protesters had every right to peaceful protest. He also called the use of force by police against peaceful protesters in the early days a mistake.

'Democracy is more than elections'

"Democracy doesn't just mean elections. There is nothing more natural than expressing different views, situations and objections using various means other than elections," Gul said at the time.

"Peaceful protests are naturally part of this. In that context, I see the developments of the past few days within that framework."

This wasn't the first time Gul had openly disagreed with Erdogan. In 2003, Erdogan supported a deal with the US government to use Turkey as a launching pad to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He called on AKP MPs to vote in favour of the motion.

Gul, then prime minister, had concerns over allowing Turkish territory to be used to attack another Muslim country, and in a speech before the parliamentary vote told AKP MPs: "You will decide based on your own conscience. I cannot ask you to vote in this or that manner."

The bill was rejected by parliament.

I was looking for a hard quote from Gul. We spoke for over an hour. I couldn't find a single one. He charmed me into silence.

- journalist

The quintessential diplomat, Gul had a knack for avoiding any sensational statements.

As one seasoned international journalist said about him: "I was looking for a hard quote from Gul. We spoke for over an hour. Later when I looked through my notes, I couldn't find a single one. He charmed me into silence. What a talent."

This same characteristic, however, also led detractors to call him a "sly and underhanded" person who was determined to covertly erode and destroy Turkey's secular foundations.

Many of those same detractors, now contrite, proclaimed that Gul was worse than Erdogan, who at least was open about his intentions.

Today many, for completely divergent reasons, would like to see Gul back at Erdogan's side.

His erstwhile detractors now cede that Gul played a pivotal balancing role in the face of Erdogan's aggression and hostile stances.

Erdogan and his camp reportedly want Gul back onside to recover the AKP's lost urban area votes in the run-in to a tricky election and perhaps Erdogan's final major challenge before taking full formal control of the country.

Erdogan will be faced with a tough task convincing Gul given his emphatic silence when Gul and his family were viciously attacked on social media by Erdogan's cronies and supporters at the time he was perceived as a threat.

For all his statesman-like qualities, Gul is also a seasoned and ruthless politician himself.

He led the dissident reformist movement that created the AKP from within the now defunct traditionalist Islamist parties Welfare and Virtue, for both of which he was an MP.

The 67-year-old, amiable Gul has seen off plenty of political challenges since taking up active politics in 1991.

The question now is what could tempt Gul, who has already served as president, prime minister and foreign minister, back into active politics other than a desire to save his one-time friend Erdogan and perhaps the future of Turkey's Islamist presence in politics.

Istanbul's Blue Mosque. The jewel in the crown of a Gul mayoralty? (Reuters)

Mayor Gul?

One suggestion being mooted is the mayoralty of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, with a population of about 16 million and arguably the jewel in the country's crown.

It would represent a prestigious, high-profile but largely non-political role.

Gul was sat next to Erdogan on the night of 15 July when a ceremony marking last July's coup attempt was being marked on Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge, now called the 15 July Martyrs Bridge.

At the same event television images showed Istanbul's long-serving and now beleaguered mayor, Kadir Topbas, being ignored by Erdogan as he entered and exited a memorial inaugurated next to the bridge to honour those who lost their lives during the coup attempt.

Topbas's son-in-law is currently under arrest for alleged links to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, whom authorities say is responsible for the attempted coup.

Although whispers of a potential truce offering to Gul and other prominent AKP dissidents are growing louder, Gul, as has been his wont through the years, remains tight-lipped and is offering no comment.

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