By Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent of Abu Dhabi based “The National”
ISTANBUL // As the reform drive of Turkey?s government has slowed almost to a halt, the EU has been looking to Abdullah Gul, the president, as the true supporter of change in Ankara, fuelling speculation about a growing rift between Mr Gul and his friend Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.
Mr Gul used his traditional message on the Eid al Adha festival on Monday to hammer home his core messages that Turkey needs more reforms to improve living conditions for all its citizens and that the country is strong enough to solve its inner conflicts, ranging from the Kurdish question to tensions between religiously conservative and secular groups.
?We are trying to lift standards in every respect in our country and turn it into a state that is more respected around the world and into an affluent society,? the president said in his statement. ?Turkey is the representative of a civilisation formed by values like accepting differences as richness, peace, love, tolerance and brotherhood. Everyone who lives in this country as an equal citizen is a partner in the country?s future, not only the past.?
As a prime minister from late 2002 until he was replaced by his political ally and long-term friend Mr Erdogan in March 2003 and as a foreign minister from 2003 until 2007, Mr Gul made a name for himself as the driving force behind many political reforms that pushed Turkey closer to membership in the European Union.
?We will take steps that will shock the EU,? Mr Gul famously announced after his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in Nov 2002 and kicked off a series of reforms that led to the start of membership talks between the EU and Turkey in 2005.
Mr Gul?s election to the presidency last year, however, sparked bitter protests from secularists and also weakened the AKP?s reformist wing.
With Mr Gul no longer in the cabinet, there is no one left in the government with enough clout to keep Mr Erdogan on the reform track, observers said.
?We wish he was still in government ensuring balance during these critical times,? the English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review quoted an unnamed senior EU official as saying about Mr Gul last month.
There is a marked difference between the pro-European image Mr Gul still enjoys in Brussels and the perceived sluggishness of the reform process under Mr Erdogan.
?While the new president played a positive role by calling for further political reforms, the government did not put forward a consistent and comprehensive programme of political and constitutional reforms,? the EU said in a major report on Turkey?s progress as a candidate for membership last month.
As president, Mr Gul is a largely ceremonial head of state who has little concrete political power and who has largely to rely on speeches and symbolic steps to influence events.
On his first trip after becoming president last year, he visited Turkey?s Kurdish region, signalling the importance he attaches to solving the Kurdish conflict that has led to the death of tens of thousands of people in a war between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish army since 1984. He wanted to spend this year?s Eid al Adha in the Kurdish region but was prevented from doing so by an ear infection, his office said.
In September, Mr Gul became the first Turkish president to visit neighbouring Armenia, thereby starting a cautious process of rapprochement with Yerevan. Press reports said he is planning a trip to Iraq this month.
For all his initiatives, Mr Gul has not succeeded in winning over his secular critics. The main opposition party as well as the strictly secular leadership of the armed forces have limited their contacts with the head of state to a minimum. For them, Mr Gul is an Islamist who should not be in the office once occupied by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey?s founder. The fact that Mr Gul?s wife, Hayrunnisa, wears the Islamic headscarf is one of the reasons for the rejection.
This summer, Turkey?s chief prosecutor asked the constitutional court to ban Mr Gul from active politics along with Mr Erdogan and dozens of other leading AKP politicians. The court narrowly rejected the demand.
Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan share a religiously conservative outlook and years of co-operation in the AKP, and the president still refers to the prime minister as a personal friend. But differences between the two politicians have become more pronounced recently.
?The European Union addresses its idea that Turkey has not delivered the expected reforms to Gul, whereas a sector [of society] that believes the EU efforts are not urgent and even pose a danger to national security and the immediate future of the country has intensified its contacts with the government,? Mehmet Ali Kislali, a columnist, wrote in the daily Radikal.
The Kurdish conflict has also become an issue where Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan seem to be at odds. The president has been stressing the need for more democracy to solve the long-running problem, while Mr Erdogan has been seen to take a much tougher line in recent weeks, telling an audience last month that everyone who did not agree with the idea of national unity could ?go where they please?.
Turkish media have said there is a growing coldness between the president and prime minister.
?It has been noted that the pair that used to meet very often in the past has even found reasons to cancel their weekly meetings,? which are part of the routine between the head of state and the head of government, the Milliyet newspaper reported last week.
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Source: “The National”, Abu Dhabi, 12 December 2008