Erdogan’s presidency: A risky gamble?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidency could seriously weaken Turkey’s AKP and hurt its chances in future

Turkish Prime Minister and presidential candidate of the ruling party in the August election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Emrah G

The local elections in Turkey a few months ago produced only one victor –  Prime Minister Recep Erdogan – and everyone else was a loser, including his own Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In the weeks leading up those elections, Erdogan increasingly personalised the political discourse and turned the mayoral elections into a plebiscite for his one-man rule. He interpreted the landslide victory as a green light for his presidential ambitions, which he announced on July 1.

Most polls project an Erdogan victory. If these projections come true, Erdogan will soon become Turkey’s twelfth (and the first popularly elected “civilian”) president since 1923. This may sound like good news to the prime minister and his supporters, but it is not necessarily so.

Erdogan, the leader and the ‘victim’

In the ten months before the March 2014 elections, Turkish politics experienced two major crises. The first one was the Gezi demonstrations of May-Jun 2013. The second one was the December 17 corruption scandal that implicated key government officials and their family members.

Listening Post – Turkey vs Twitter

Erdogan is a strong populist leader. His main strength has been his extreme ability to set the agenda for domestic and regional politics and every day discourse. He would proactively set the agenda; the opposition, media and the rest of the society would sheepishly follow

But beginning with the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the coup d’etat in Egypt, and especially the Gezi events Erdogan found himself in an unfamiliar terrain. He was no longer in the driver’s seat. Others were setting the agenda, and Erdogan was only passively – and often belatedly – reacting to what was happening in the streets of Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo. Likewise, in the case of the December 17 scandal, it was police chiefs and prosecutors who were setting the agenda and making the headlines, not the prime minister.

That he was no longer the agenda-setting leader frustrated and angered Erdogan, blurred his judgment and made him increasingly insular and paranoid. In this vein, he has adopted an increasingly controversial and polarising style of politics.

His speeches and policies alienated various groups in Turkish society. He viewed every event and development as an assault on his personality and family. The “enemy” changed almost every day. One day it was the Constitutional Court which Erdogan accused of being “unpatriotic” after the court removed the twitter ban; another day it was the governor of the Central Bank whom Erdogan accused of undermining his government’s policies and serving the “interest rate lobby“. One thing remained constant though: Erdogan was always the “victim”.

The victimisation narrative and the personification of political discourse in recent years has emphasised Erdogan’s personal traits and charisma over the authority of the AKP, and increasingly contributed to its deinstitutionalisation. The party was simply reduced to an “Erdogan lovers club”. Glorification, prophetisation and deitisation of Erdogan have become almost a common practice among local party leaders and members of parliament.

For instance, according to a party deputy from Duzce, Erdogan was a leader who embodied all qualities of God. Similarly, a local party boss from Aydin, in 2010, declared Erdogan the “second” prophet of Islam. Many other members of the party also went on record declaring that they were ready to die and become martyrs in defence of their leader, Erdogan.

A party for the leader

Against the background of the ongoing personality cult, the future of AKP after Erdogan is highly dubious. Many supporters cannot even imagine the party without its leader: AKP is Erdogan, and Erdogan is AKP. In this regard, his decision to run in presidential elections in August is highly risky. In fact,  he might come to regret it one day because it is very likely that by moving to Cankaya Palace, he will lose the immense powers and influence he amassed as prime minister since 2003.

There are several reasons for this. First, Erdogan has so far failed to rewrite the constitution and change the parliamentary system into a presidential one because he did not command the necessary majority in the parliament.

Listening Post – Erdogan: Control, conflict, conglomerates

Second, Erdogan also failed to change the current electoral system of proportional representation into a majoritarian (first-pass-the-post) system that would give his party a supermajority in the 2015 parliamentary elections. According to the constitution, the deadline to adopt a new electoral system to be used in 2015 was June 2014. Thus, it looks like if Erdogan becomes the next president, he will need to settle for the relatively limited powers and authority currently conferred upon the presidency under the constitution.

In the Turkish system the prime minister is the head of the government, not the president. Realising that he may never be able to rewrite the constitution so he could be head of both government and the state, Erdogan has told his supporters that he won’t settle for a “ceremonial” office, but an “active” one which allow him to build bridges and roads.

Under the current constitution, the president has no such roles and duties. This means that in order for “President Erdogan” to continue shaping everyday government policy, he needs to install a weak puppet prime minister who he can use to maintain his stranglehold over party and state affairs.

In this context, it is important to note that AKP’s internal charter bans members from running for office after serving three consecutive terms in parliament. The current legislative term (2011-2015) is the third term of the AKP. This means that by 2015 many influential AKP members who founded the party with Erdogan and served in cabinet positions will lose their offices.

This will give Erdogan a chance to purge supporters of President Abdullah Gul who established AKP with Erdogan from the rank and file, and fill the party with inexperienced loyalists who will serve him well in the next 5-10 years and ensure that the next cabinet will be loyal to him.

Although this is a very likely scenario, it is also very risky for both Erdogan and the party. If Erdogan follows this strategy, he will be in indirect control of the party. He will need to rely upon proxies for management of everyday party business.

In politics there are always principal-agent problems. Agents may shirk responsibility and, more importantly over time, their preferences and interests may diverge from those of the principal; thus, there is no guarantee that this model will produce the most effective and reliable results for Erdogan.

Then comes the question of who will be responsible for policy failures. Of course, since the president cannot be held accountable under the current constitution, for every policy failure, Erdogan will blame the government. In the end, this will weaken AKP and seriously harm its chances in future elections.

If this happens, it is also very possible that disgruntled Gul supporters and those who were left out of office because of the three-term rule may leave AKP and set up their own party under the leadership of President Gul, who has been at odds with Erdogan for some time now. In the worst case, the weakened AKP may lose the elections and an incoming government may decide to open a corruption investigation against Erdogan and try to force him to resign.

Erdogan does have an alternative. He can appoint an interim prime minister until 2015 elections, and thereafter have Abdullah Gul  take over as head of government and chairman of the party. However, in this case Erdogan will not be able to maintain his control over the state and party affairs.

Gul, who has not been happy about the direction the country has taken under Erdogan in the last few years, would not allow him to expand his powers but would let him stay in the Cankaya Palace “untouched”. In this case, the AKP may preserve its political power for another term or two, while Erdogan – albeit relatively marginalised – would get to serve as president with limited powers but complete immunity to possible corruption charges.

In either case, the presidency is a high-stake gamble for both the prime minister and the AKP. 

Yuksel Sezgin is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse University.