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A 'new Turkey' under President Erdogan?

Turkey's new president-elect is expected to change the political system, but experts say Erdogan faces many challenges.

Last updated: 11 Aug 2014 11:01
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Results showed Erdogan winning 52 percent of the votes in Turkey's first presidential election [Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey - Turkey's outgoing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has secured the majority required to win in the first round of the country's first direct presidential elections, but low voter turnout in the landmark polls has raised uncertainty around Erdogan's efforts to change the country's political system.

"There is no doubt that he won the election, but it is not the resounding mandate [Erdogan] was seeking to transform the Turkish constitution," said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Provisional results showed Erdogan winning 52 percent of the vote, ahead of his two rivals, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the main candidate of the two main opposition parties in parliament, the centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and pro-Kurdish Selahattin Demirtas.

Early estimates indicated that 70 percent of the 53 million eligible voters participated in the election, a sharp drop from the 89 percent turnout that gave Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a resounding victory in local elections in March.

Voting in Turkey is compulsory and the state punishes those who do not vote with a monetary fine, but the law is rarely enforced.

There is no doubt that he won the election, but it is not the resounding mandate [Erdogan] was seeking to transform the Turkish constitution.

- Soli Ozel, professor at Istanbul Bilgi University

Ahead of Turkish parliamentary elections in 2015, Erdogan is expected to push through constitutional change to bolster the current role of president, and transform Turkish politics into a US-style presidential system with executive powers.

"A new constitution on the path to a new Turkey will be one of our priorities if elected president. A new constitution means a new future," Erdogan said during his campaign.


RELATED: Erdogan wins Turkey's presidential election


Polling booths in Istanbul were quiet well into the afternoon on Sunday, with voters trickling in at a major polling station in central Besiktas. "I'm voting for Erdogan, for the prosperity and wellbeing of the country," said salesman Hassan Korc, 52, in Kasimpasa, the working class neighbourhood where Erdogan was born and raised.

"We couldn't express our religion openly before. Everyone is more comfortable now, whether they wear a headscarf or not," he told Al Jazeera.

While remaining popular among the country's majority Sunni Muslim voters, and boasting successful economic credentials, Erdogan has faced the biggest challenges to his 11-year reign as prime minister in the last year - violently suppressing a mass uprising against his rule in 2013 and enduring a widespread corruption scandal.

Critics point to growing disenchantment with the man they perceive to be increasingly authoritarian.

Erdogan wins Turkey's presidential election.

"I will vote for Ekmeleddin even though I don't like him at all," said Zafer Asilmar, 40, a telecommunications manager in the CHP stronghold of Besiktas, at the polls. "We are going to lose anyway, but at least if it goes to a second round, it would send the message that there are 50 percent who don't support him [Erdogan]," he said,

Others said the inevitability of Erdogan's win at presidential elections - seen as less critical to the success of the party than local elections in March - and summer holidays were behind the lower turnout, even in AKP-supporting districts.

"We wouldn't expect such a change among the electorate from local elections in March," said Galip Dalay, a researcher at the Ankara based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). "The motivation to go to the polls was lower than the local elections; the consequences were not so high, " he said, noting that all previous opinion polls predicted Erdogan would win by a wide margin.


IN PICTURES: Turkey votes in presidential election


Erdogan now faces the much more critical challenge of choreographing the right domestic political conditions to transition the country to the presidential system. AKP officials have argued Turkey - a NATO member and key Washington ally - is more suited to a presidential system, suggesting the current parliamentary system is an outdated relic of unwanted military rule.

A first round win means more legitimacy for Erdogan and will strengthen his case for being a stronger president, but the uncertainty is not in the outcome of this election, but the set-up of the new Turkish government.

- Sinan Ulgen, EDAM think tank and Carnegie Europe scholar

Erdogan has pegged his campaign to a vision of a "new Turkey", in what most interpret as moving the country away from its secular past. But others fear a transition to a presidential system that will give Erdogan special powers over the military and courts and will remove a system of checks and balances in what they say is an already-eroding democracy.

Analysts said he will need to appoint a compliant government which will exercise his will, but also lead the AKP to victory in parliamentary elections and retain a majority to successfully push through the constitutional amendments.

"A first round win means more legitimacy for Erdogan and will strengthen his case for being a stronger president, but the uncertainty is not in the outcome of this election, but the set-up of the new Turkish government," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank, and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

The post of prime minister will prove critical. "Who the party chooses as prime minister is important because that person will be tasked by Erdogan to set up the new cabinet," Ulgen said.

Under the current constitution, Erdogan will need to resign as chairman of the ruling AKP once confirmed as president. The outgoing president, Abdullah Gul, will handover the post on August 20. The party will then need to convene an extraordinary convention to elect a new prime minister and cabinet.

Ulgen said Erdogan will seek to extend his influence as outgoing prime minister and president-elect to choose the new cabinet. "He will stretch the limits of constitutional constraints because he will want to secure a big win at parliamentary elections," he said, adding that he expected Erdogan to focus "almost exclusively" on domestic politics ahead of the 2015 elections, including the peace process with Turkey's Kurds.

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