Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his political and economic manifesto for the upcoming presidential election in August, reflecting a potential change in the role of the president.
In a speech on Friday, Erdogan put forth his priorities if he is elected president: advancing democracy, ensuring a normalisation of politics and society, improving social welfare, and reaching the top 10 economies worldwide.
The office will be chosen by popular vote for the first time in Turkish history, in line with a 2007 constitutional amendment.
Erdogan’s statement came a day after Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a high-profile diplomat and the presidential candidate for five opposition parties, announced the beginning of his official campaign with messages of “unity” and “neutrality”.
In his speech, Erdogan promised to work towards a new constitution, to resolve the Kurdish issue, achieve higher democratic standards, make progress in Turkey’s European Union membership bid, and protect the public against the “circles in the state”, apparently referring to officials he believes act unlawfully in Turkish state institutions.
Experts agree that his manifesto is highly politicised for a position that is traditionally non-political. Avni Ozgurel, a Turkish analyst and author who writes for liberal Turkish daily Radikal, told Al Jazeera that Turkey would go through a de facto transition from a parliamentary to presidential system if Erdogan was to win the election.
We will need to plant the seeds of respect to be respectful of the government, the judiciary and all the segments of society. If elected, I will work to improve these relationships in the framework of respect.
“Erdogan’s highly political manifesto reflects a programme of a leader in a semi-presidential or presidential system, which is how the de facto practice of politics will take place if he wins,” Ozgurel said. “The prime minister at that time will act similar to a secretary-general, although he will have the real executive powers according to the Turkish parliamentary system.”
The surprise candidacy of Ihsanoglu, a religious scholar and diplomat who used to head the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), was announced in mid-June. The opposition’s move to pick a conservative presidential candidate was widely seen as an effort to attract conservative voters loyal to Erdogan, whose ruling party scored a landslide victory in local elections on March 30.
Ihsanoglu’s campaign emphasises that he would represent all political groups and citizens of Turkey.
“I am not close to one party more than any other,” said Ihsanoglu, who has the support of the left-leaning secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP), the two largest opposition parties in the country, in addition to three smaller ones.
“[The] Turkish presidency is not an executive position,” he said, referring to the constitutional definition of the role: “Monitoring the neat and coherent functioning of state institutions.”
Ihsanoglu’s race against Erdogan, who has dominated Turkey’s political scene for the last 12 years, is seen as a big challenge for the Cairo-born diplomat, as he is not well-known. In his speech, he indirectly blamed the government for not showing enough respect to state institutions and all segments of society, stressing that he would not allow for seculars or conservatives to be insulted.
“I would not let youth to be called looters or squeeze heads,” he said. “Looters” was the term used by Erdogan to describe youth attending the mass anti-government protests in the summer of 2013. “Squeeze head”, meanwhile, is a sarcastic slang term used in Turkey for women wearing the hijab.
“We will need to plant the seeds of respect to be respectful of the government, the judiciary, and all the segments of society. If elected, I will work to improve these relationships in the framework of respect,” Ihsanoglu said.
Ozgurel said that Ihsanoglu’s rhetoric would have very little influence on the public, since he is not a politician. “Ihsanoglu is an important intellectual, but I don’t think he is what the public [wants] right now,” he said.
In contrast to Ihsanoglu’s stress on neutrality, Erdogan often referred to the activities of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in his speech, including infrastructure projects, domestic political changes, foreign policy or new welfare services in Turkey.
A new constitution on the path to new Turkey will be one of our priorities if elected president. A new constitution means a new future.
“A new constitution on the path to new Turkey will be one of our priorities if elected president. A new constitution means a new future,” Erdogan said.
He called the previous system, in which the presidential seat was filled through a parliamentary vote, the “guard of the regime in old Turkey” that made the president and the government, which is elected by popular vote, rivals.
Ozgurel also said that the new constitution Erdogan talked about would also bring a semi-presidential or presidential system to Turkey if the AK Party secured the necessary number of seats for it in the 2015 general elections.
In the past, Erdogan has said he sought an office merging the powers of the president and the prime minister by changing Turkey’s parliamentary system into a true presidential system. However, his party did not have the necessary majority in parliament to pass a new constitution as other parties did not support such a change despite months of negotiations.
In Turkey, the president, who is neutral according to Turkish political tradition, has more powers compared to similar parliamentary regimes. He or she has the power to put forward laws or return them to parliament for reconsideration, to call public referenda, to call new parliamentary elections, to appoint the prime minister, ministers, and key bureaucrats.
Ozgurel said that if Erdogan was to lose, the dynamics of Turkish politics would shift, both in terms of the opposition and the government. “It would be chaotic,” Ozgurel said.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras