The Erdogan/Gul Prisoner Dilemma

During the Cold War, strategists often turned to game theory to explain deterrence and the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The United States and the Soviet Union, for example, were cast as players in an open-ended PD game, whereby the two sides had an immediate incentive to defect, i.e. launch a first strike, but realized that defecting would invite a devastating second-strike. Thus, the consequences of a nuclear exchange outweighed the payoff associated with a first strike and the two sides opted to cooperate – i.e. not launch first.

In the context of the Erdogan – Gul relationship, I can’t help but think that the two men are locked into a long-term iterated PD game. To start, the AKP faces no political rival. And, in carving out such a large swathe of the electorate they currently face no real political opposition. Absent the threat of a military coup, the AKP now faces only one real challenger – itself. In other words, if Gul were to defect from the party, he would actually catalyze the downfall of the AKP. The same goes for Erdogan. MAD.

Both Erdogan and Gul have been playing an iterated PD game since the AKP’s election in 2002. After the election, Erdogan’s previous arrest prevented him from serving as Prime Minister. Yet, in what must have been a very interesting back-room deal, Gul agreed to serve as Prime Minister, up until Erdogan’s legal troubles were resolved. After Erdogan was allowed to run for Parliament, Gul stepped aside – or to use PD language, he did not defect – and agreed to serve as Foreign Minister.

In 2007, Erdogan appears to have held up his end of the bargain and supported Gul’s nomination for Presidency, even though it provoked a secular backlash that nearly resulted in the AKP’s closure. Nevertheless, the two men have remained loyal to one another, despite obvious differences about the way in which Erdogan has governed the country in recent years. Thus, as the two sides now discuss whether or not Erdogan will run for President, or simply stay on as Prime Minister for another term, the men are now in discussions about what their future political roles may be.

As of now, Erodgan has two options:

1) The simplest option is for him to change the AKP’s self-imposed three term limit. After the rule change, he would simply be reelected Prime Minister. Gul would then serve a second term as president.

2) Erdogan runs for President. And here is where it gets very interesting There are two sub-options: If Erdogan chooses to do this, he will have to reach an agreement with Gul about his future position. If Gul opts to become Prime Minister, then the AKP would have to call a special election – the district mentioned is Bayburt. The Bayburt MP would step aside. Gul would run in that election, be elected, and then the AKP would convene a special party congress, where Gul would be nominated to be Prime Minister. If this scenario were to take place, the AKP would have to appoint a figure head prime minister for the period after Erdogan’s presidential election and the special election for Gul. Erdogan has hinted that he will not call an early election. So, if he sticks to this promise, the earliest Gul could be elected is June 2015. If Gul does not agree to this scenario, then he could serve in a different position. In this case, I would presume that he would be the head of the party. And, if I had to guess, this is Erdogan’s preferred strategy. I would assume that if Gul did not opt to be Robin to Erdogan’s Batman, Numan Kurtulmus could be tapped to be the figure head Prime Minister.

Now, Erdogan can’t simply cast Gul aside. He has a minority of supporters in the party and his more subtle governing style does help to keep some people under the AKP’s very large political tent. While Erdogan is the more powerful player, he has certain vulnerabilities that Gul could exploit, should Erdogan defect and try cut Gul out out of the AKP’s future. And, as I mentioned earlier, if Erdogan does defect, he risks splitting the party. And, if he does this, then he will halve his political base, which means that his post-Presidential mandate to amend the constitution to empower the position will be threatened. That is obviously out of the question. So, the two men now find themselves in a very, very interesting situation. While they both could garner higher initial payoffs from defection, the better play is to continue to cooperate.

Thus, before Erdogan makes any decision about his future, he will have to take Gul’s demands very seriously. The focus, therefore, should not exclusively be on Erdogan’s Presidential ambitions. For me, I think the far more interesting question is: What exactly does Gul want?

Well, yesterday he told the media that a Putin-Medvedev style swap is “inconceivable.” He went on to say, “I don’t have any political plan for the future under today’s circumstances.” The statement would seem to imply that he is not willing to simply say olé as Erdogan seeks to increase the powers of the Presidency at the expense of the Prime Ministry. And, given the need for Erdogan to accommodate Gul, I believe he now has lot more power than he is given credit for.

Thus, moving forward, I would suspect that Gul and Erdogan will engage in numerous discussions intended to delineate the role/authority each will have in a future semi-presidential system. And here is where I think Turkey faces the biggest political risk. The current plans necessitate the rapid rewriting of laws to accommodate a new presidential system that has hitherto not been present in Turkish politics. Call me crazy, but I don’t think it is politically healthy for a country to rapidly rewrite laws to accommodate the political ambitions of two men shortly before and after an election. (However, if Erdogan does run and does win on the first ballot, then one can easily imagine the National Will talking point being used to justify his actions. And in this case, the BDP will be kingmakers, but that is the subject for another post.)

In any case, Gul has just told us all what he does not want: A Medvedev style Prime Ministry. Moving forward, Turkey’s future hinges on Gul’s ambitions and the compromises reached behind closed doors with Erdogan. As of now, it is unclear how this will all play out. However, game theory tells us that the two sides will not defect and will continue to cooperate.


About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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2 Responses to The Erdogan/Gul Prisoner Dilemma

  1. Pingback: WEEKEND READING: APRIL 25

  2. Tembel Şirin says:

    I think like most Westerners you greatly exaggerate the influence and power base of Abdullah Gül.

    Most Turkish politicians have privately regarded him as finished for several years now.

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