Erdogan’s next move and the future of the AKP

AKP will retain power in Turkey only if it consolidates its party institutions and expands its constituency.

Erdogan is likely to remain a leading figure in Turkish politics even after he leaves the premiership, argues Dalay [AFP]

Turkey is set to have its first popularly elected president in August. On the governing side of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), all signs point to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the party’s candidate for the presidential race. On the opposition side, no name has so far emerged as a potential candidate to challenge him in the contest.

Since the president will be elected by the people for the first time, questions abound regarding his or her new role in the political system. Moreover, as Erdogan has made clear his desire to assume the presidency, the future of his party has been hotly debated since he would have to leave the partys chairmanship, if elected president.

As noted by Hatem Ete of SETA Foundation, after the presidential elections of August, Turkey will experience a third type of presidential system. The first refers to the period between 1923-1960, during which the presidential office was the most powerful institution in the system with the power to appoint the prime minister, and was hence directly responsive to the people. On the all important decisions, the president retained the primary authority.

A new type of presidentialism

Yet after the military coup of the 1960, a new type of presidentialism was devised by Turkey’s military-led bureaucratic establishment in which the presidential office was detached from the people, made responsive to the establishment, and given a ceremonial role, putting aside its power of appointing high-ranking bureaucrats. This power of appointment was conferred upon the president, as he was regarded as a check on the power of the elected parliament. Aside from the presidencies of the reform-minded Turgut Ozal and Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s presidents have performed this role meticulously since the 1961 coup constitution.

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The election of the president was altered in 2007, due to the discord between the AKP government and the secular establishment (spearheaded by the military) over the candidacy of Abdullah Gul, whose wife wore a headscarf.

It is therefore clear that the nature and content of the presidency will change as well. In the new, projected form, the president will launch his or her election campaign, deliver political messages, rely on a social base for his election, and ultimately be elected directly by the people with over 50 percent vote.

Given the legitimacy and power that the president will acquire with such a wide margin and Turkey’s highly political and polarised society, the president will inevitably become a political personality, responsive to his or her electoral base, and thereby act in a political manner as well.

Furthermore, there will be a change to the one-term limit in previous election rules, one of the main factors that drove a wedge between the president and the people and made him a representative of the system (rather than people). In the new format, the president will be able to seek re-election for a second term, further creating an incentive for the elected president to be responsive to the demands of his or her constituency.

Specifically, Turkey’s political system centred around the premiership is expected to encounter various challenges, as Turkey’s next president will have a strong popular mandate and highly likely to be elected with a larger share of votes than the prime minister. Unless settled, this issue will further complicate Turkey’s political system and render it amenable to long-term problems.

The bond between Erdogan and the AKP’s social base, alongside its continuing upward mobilisation, has paved the way for him to remain the most powerful personality in the political system. Turkey’s modernisation project and republican history created a minority of “winners” – a Western-oriented secular section of society that seamlessly fits the desired notion of the republican citizen – and a majority of “losers” – the large conservative-Islamic-Kurdish part of Turkey.

Over the last decade, however, this majority has experienced a significant socioeconomic upward mobility, which they attribute to the AKP’s policies. At present, this group still feels that its economic prosperity remains incomplete and historical reconciliation processes, such as the Kurdish peace process, unfinished. Aside from institutional arrangements, this psychology at the party’s social base enriches the grounds for Erdogan to continue as the true power broker in Turkey. The AKP will remain in power and Erdogan in charge of Turkish politics, insofar as they serve as the carrier and aggregator of the demands and aspirations of the previously neglected majority.

The AKP after Erdogan

This vision nevertheless presents the AKP and Erdogan with the challenge of reconciling the demands of the new rising conservative class with the demands of the social base of the previously powerful Kemalist regime. Further, questions emerge as to how the AKP will navigate Turkey’s politics if and when Erdogan leaves the party chairmanship to become the president, as required by law.

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Robert Michel in his book on political parties argues that over time “[political] organisation will find it difficult to adapt to changing external circumstances”.

Though this theory holds true for the majority of parties and party systems in the democratic world, there have also been significant exceptions to this rule, as evident by the Liberal Democratic Party’s rule in Japan, the Christian Democrats in Italy (especially between 1945 and 1980), Germany’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party of Sweden (between 1932 and 1976 and again after 1982).

The success of these parties in adapting their party structure and priorities to rising challenges and in lessening their reliance on a single personality has contributed to their endurance. Turkey’s governing AKP faces a similar challenge: The party’s continuing success at the polls is contingent upon how well it is capable of adapting its organisational structure, language and policies to the new realities, especially after its charismatic leader leaves his post.

Furthermore, because of the party’s three-term limit rule, 73 MPs will not be able to stand for re-election in general elections in 2015. This will be an opportunity to further reorganise itself. This process will also be essential for the transition from a long-standing governing party to a dominant party, akin to the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan or Social Democratic Party of Sweden. Although charismatic leadership was a common denominator in these parties at the beginning of their rule, they managed to maintain power by adapting their party structures and rhetoric to new realities, absorbing new social bases and consolidating primary constituencies.

Over the last decade, the AKP has significantly increased its social base. However, the dramatical polarisation of Turkish politics since 2011-2012 has limited its chances of accessing new constituencies. According to a recent study, 54 percent were willing to vote for the AKP in 2012. This number eventually dropped as a result of tensions, political polarisations and other sensational developments in the country.

In this respect, while it is fair to claim that the AKP achieved another sweeping victory in the March 30 local elections with 45-46 percent of vote, it is also true that its performance stood below its potential. After the possible departure of Erdogan – who will likely remain a leading figure in Turkish politics – the party has the chance to reach new constituencies only if it consolidates its institutions, de-escalates political tension, and employs a new rhetoric befitting Turkey’s transformed society. That is because the current support base of the AKP continues to see its fortune in the party’s success.

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.