Erdogan’s presidential ambitions

Turkey’s PM faces constitutional and electoral challenges if he wants to become president.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ruled the country for the past 10 years under a parliamentary democratic system [AP]

Rize, Turkey – On August 24, 2013, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended a rally here in his family’s home province. The Rize visit – to a region where he is adored – could be seen as a morale boost for the embattled leader, who is facing isolation and uncertainty regarding after a decade in power.

“He never forgot here, he always came back,” said Selim Buyuk, the mayor of Guneysu, the town where Erdogan’s family renovated a brown wooden house in which he stays when visiting.

“The world envies how you stand strong,” read banners strung across the street. “We will vote down the people in Taksim,” reads another, a jab at June’s mass protests, which were sparked by the government-proposed destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park – a move that tarnished Erdogan’s international standing.

Rize’s poverty forced Erdogan’s father to migrate to Istanbul. The future leader grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, but visited Rize frequently. His aunt, Fikriye, never imagined he might become prime minister, she told Al Jazeera in the rural village of Dumankaya.

“They were so poor – his father died, his mother had problems,” she said.

These humble beginnings allowed Erdogan to connect city and countryside – and thus be considered the most popular democratically elected leader in recent Turkish history. Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, never faced an election. Yet the rules of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) block the political veteran from seeking another term as prime minister.

Despite accusations that he is acting in a more authoritarian way, Erdogan has all but declared himself a candidate for president in the October 2014 election, when the country will hold its first public vote for the post. However, his path to retaining power is far from certain. Some of his current policies have backfired and several technicalities prevent smooth sailing to the presidency.

Big ambitions 

The presidency was once Ataturk’s, observed Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst at the Washington Institute For Near East Policy. “It’s almost like a natural power high for Erdogan to want to get Ataturk’s position through a democratic election.”

Erdogan's idea of serving the country is to rule without checks and balances.

by Cengiz Aktar, political scientist

While Erdogan has previously said that he did not think a presidential system was right for Turkey, his personal sense of mission appears to have changed his mind as the end of his premiership approached.

“He sees this has nothing to do with democracy, probably. But he doesn’t care, because he thinks the ultimate value is to serve the country,” said Cengiz Aktar, an Istanbul-based independent political science expert.

“But Erdogan’s idea of serving the country is to rule without checks and balances and enact controversial construction schemes – called his ‘crazy projects’ – to fuel the economy without consulting anyone,” Aktar said. “This is why he cherishes the presidential system.”

Kadri Gursel, a columnist with the Turkish daily Milliyet, warned that the days of Erdogan’s unquestioned success were over. A range of issues – from the economy, to growing domestic opposition, and risk of further regional war – present a negative outlook ahead of next year’s election.

“There is no room for Erdogan to manoeuvre to change the tide in a positive direction,” Gursel said.

Changing the system

In Turkey, the president is head of state, but it remains largely a symbolic position. It includes the power to send legislation back to parliament, to appoint judges to the constitutional court and install university presidents. The president is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and can call meetings of parliament. 

These powers hardly appear sufficient for Erdogan, who as prime minister headed the government and controlled important business tenders, directed investment, and calls for new elections.

In November 2012, he proposed amending the constitution to allow for an empowered presidency. He initially demanded what Gursel described as an authoritarian presidential system that offered virtually unchecked power. He wanted the power to dissolve parliament and the authority to issue presidential decrees, Gursel said. “This would have opened the door to a dictatorial regime.”


by ”Abdullah

are using it [the presidential system bid] as a bargaining chip.”]

So strong was the opposition in parliament – the writing of a new constitution was frozen – that some wonder if the proposal to formally create a presidential system was a bluff all along. According to Abdullah Bozkurt, Ankara bureau-chief for Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, the AKP understood there was “no support” among the Turkish public for the change to a presidential system of governance. “They are using it as a bargaining chip,” Bozkurt said of the proposals.

The result could give Erdogan more flexibility in his quest to retain power, which he very much needs given the current tensions and unpredictability in the country. Local elections scheduled for March 2014 will allow him to better gauge the outcome of a presidential vote.

If he senses that running for the presidency might result in a loss, he is likely to instead focus on changing AKP rules to remain prime minister, according to multiple analysts.

“We should not make early conclusions before seeing the results of the local elections,” said Gursel. “If AKP loses Istanbul and Ankara, everything will be different.”

Presidential challenges

If Erdogan does run for president, he faces two main challenges.

First, he will need to amend Article 101 of the constitution, which states that the president not be a member of any political party – in order to insure neutrality.

For Erdogan to give up his position as head of the AKP risks the party’s demise. “Turkish political parties generally collapse when they lose their charismatic leader,” Cagaptay said. “You can see how the AKP could collapse if they lose Erdogan.” The party could “implode”, he said.

Erdogan must find a compromise in parliament. AKP does not have the two-thirds majority needed to amend Article 101 without votes from another party. But by giving up on amendments that would create an empowered presidency, he might find the parliamentary compromise for the amendment.

“They are willing to withdraw their propositions for the presidential system,” Bozkurt said.

The next challenge takes the form of Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gul. While Erdogan and Gul worked together to establish the AKP, there are rumours of divisions between the two men, especially surrounding Erdogan’s desire for the presidency. Ahead of the vote, both men appear to be fighting for bargaining power: Erdogan ratcheting up tensions in the country and Gul increasing his profile by distancing himself from the prime minister.

There are rumours of divisions between President Abdullah Gul (right) and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan [Reuters] 

But Bozkurt said there were already several precedents that pointed to the two politicians reaching a compromise before the election.

When AKP first came to power in 2002, Erdogan was chairman of the party, but could not become prime minister because of a previous conviction. Instead, Gul was the first prime minister from AKP. When the appropriate laws were changed, Gul stepped aside for Erdogan to become prime minister in 2003. Gul became foreign minister.

Then, in 2007, Gul was not Erdogan’s first choice for the presidency, according to Bozkurt. But after heavy pressure from members of AKP he agreed to nominate Gul.

“My hunch is that they will probably agree to some kind of deal again because if they go against each other they might bleed each other out and allow a third candidate to become president,” Bozkurt said. 

Most analysts are betting that the two will agree to swap positions in a similar fashion to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev. 

Even if the presidency is not empowered through constitutional amendments, Erdogan’s popularity and a large number of loyal parliamentarians will allow him to exert influence over parliament. While it has never happened, Turkey’s current constitution already allows the president to chair the cabinet.

“Each term he got rid of some deputies that might create a problem for him or be loyal to President Gul or someone else,” Bozkurt said.

Yet, despite these options, Gursel warned that, with the election still a year off, there was no guarantee Erdogan would become the first democratically elected president of Turkey.

“There are so many variables that could dash his hopes,” he said.

In Dumankaya, Erdogan-supporter Haydar Delibalta pointed at mountain named Pakozdagi. 

Once, he said, Erdogan and his wife went there and declared that a mosque should be built, although there were already two recently renovated mosques in the small village.

A cable car should also be built from Pakozdagi over Dumankaya to another mountaintop, they said. “It’s a crazy idea,” Delibalta said. “But if it actually happens it would be great.” 

Delibalta is a former truck driver who had worked in most countries in the region. Unlike other residents of Rize province, he did not express an immediate devotion to Erdogan. Instead, he characterised Erdogan as a leader who must remain in power because “the justice” he established was greater than systems of governance in Syria, Egypt, or in Turkey during the violent 1980s.

“It’s not like furniture in the house,” Delibalta said. “We can’t change him in little time.”

Follow Justin Vela on Twitter: @justinvela

Source: Al Jazeera