Turkey Votes for President
August 8, 2014
On August 10, voters in Turkey will head to the polls to directly choose their president for the first time. Having led Turkey for over eleven years as prime minister and as chairman of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan has chosen to run for president instead of leading his party to a possible fourth consecutive victory in general elections in 2015 and is the overwhelming favorite to replace outgoing president Abdullah Gul.
Gul, one of the cofounders of the AKP, was elected president in August 2007 by the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) like all his predecessors. Public opposition by the military establishment to his candidacy had triggered a serious crisis and prompted a firm reaction by the AKP government. An important component of its response was the engineering of a constitutional change through a referendum in October 2007 –after Gul’s election under the previous system– mandating the election of the president directly by the voters. Another important change replaced the one-time seven year term rule with a new arrangement reducing the presidential term to five years while allowing for a second five year term.
With consistently favorable opinion polls throughout the election campaign, Erdogan is confidently expecting to win in the first round by exceeding the necessary 50 percent threshold. For this he would need to perform only slightly better than the 49.9 percent his party received in the June 2011 parliamentary elections. Although the AKP did not perform as well in the March 2014 local elections –it received 45.5 percent of the vote for metropolitan municipal mayors and 43.1 percent for municipal mayors in non-metropolitan provinces– it would be a surprise if Erdogan is forced into a second round runoff on August 24 and a major shock if he fails to ascend to the presidency.
Erdogan’s opponents are Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a former Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation without any political background jointly put forward by the opposition National Action Party (MHP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Selahattin Demirtas, a member of the TGNA from the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Ihsanoglu’s hopes of facing off against Erdogan in a second round rest on his ability to gain and, if possible, exceed the support of the approximately 44 percent of the vote the two parties backing him garnered in the recent local elections. Lagging behind the other two candidates, Demirtas is surely focusing on the more modest goal of earning at least a tenth of the overall vote to demonstrate that a Kurdish party is capable of breaking through the 10 percent barrier of the national vote required for representation by a political party in parliament, a perennial but hitherto unattainable goal for Turkey’s Kurdish parties.
Predictably the election campaign has been dominated by the charismatic Erdogan, who relishes the political stage where he has achieved an unbroken succession of victories stretching back to his run for mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Having rejected opposition calls to resign from his post while seeking the presidency, Erdogan has been utilizing the incalculable benefits of being in office as well as his overwhelming financial advantage and domination of media coverage. He is also relying on the highly resourceful and efficient AKP political network which proved once again in the recent local elections that it is capable of bringing in the votes even in the face of serious urban unrest and corruption allegations against its leader during the past year. Erdogan has been barnstorming the country calling for a reconfirmation of the voters’ continued support, boasting of his success in creating a prosperous and self-confident ‘New Turkey’ and denouncing plots by his domestic opponents –especially the Gulen Movement– linked to external forces envious of the country’s progress under the AKP.
With a first round electoral victory, Erdogan would be in a uniquely strong position as president-elect, prime minister and party chairman until August 28 when Gul vacates his post. As he has been emphasizing constantly in his campaign speeches, direct election by the Turkish people would grant him a special mandate as president. Relying on this endorsement and his unchallenged control of the AKP, Erdogan would be able to proceed quickly to his stated goal of fashioning a de facto quasi-presidential arrangement within what would still be a parliamentary system.
Erdogan has not been able to implement his plan to fundamentally redesign the Turkish political framework through a new constitution to replace the current constitution bequeathed in 1982 by the military junta which was then ruling Turkey. However, he has made it clear that he intends to use this document, through a broader implementation of the powers it gives to the president under Article 104 than his predecessors, to continue the process of centralizing power while governing the country from the Cankaya Palace.
To that end, he would undoubtedly endeavor to ensure the election of a successor as prime minister and party leader who would not create the kind of problems for him that Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel’s successors created for them when they ascended to the presidency. With parliamentary elections not due until 2015, and around 70 AKP members of the TGNA unable to run again because of the three-term limit Erdogan has refused to change, he has the time and the opportunity to also redesign his party according to his wishes.
Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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