Turkey’s presidential elections: What is at stake?

The upcoming presidential elections in Turkey might change significantly the political system in the

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is leading in the polls ahead of the August 10 presidential elections [AP]
Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is leading in the polls ahead of the August 10 presidential elections [AP]

There is little doubt that Prime Minister Recep Erdogan will win the upcoming presidential elections. His lead in the most recent public opinions polls is at least in double digits.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu was fielded as a joint candidate for the two largest opposition parties, centre-left People’s Republican Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The third candidate is Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Kurdish nationalist People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Despite the fact that this is the first election in which the president will be elected by popular vote, following a constitutional amendment in 2007,enthusiasm for it is running fairly low.

This election offers the Turkish voter the choice of two different models of presidency, where one would imply a de facto change in the system of governance. The election of either Ihsanoglu or Demirtas would maintain the fairly symbolic presidency in a parliamentary system. By contrast, Erdogan’s election will turn it into a semi-presidential one.

In recent remarks, Erdogan clearly expressed his preference for an active presidency: A president elected by the people cannot be like the previous ones. As the head of the executive, the president uses all his constitutional powers. If I am elected president, I will also use all of them. I won’t be a president of protocol.”

Erdogan certainly has some room to do that within the current constitutional provisions that determine the powers of the presidency. The concern, however, is that Erdogan is adamant about politicising the role of the president; as he himself said: he “won’t be an impartial president”.

What is at stake?

Erdogan has been eyeing the presidency for a long time, especially after he passed up an opportunity to run back in 2007. An Erdogan win is likely to solidify his power over the entire executive branch.

The critical question here is how Erdogan’s departure will affect the leadership of the AKP. In all likelihood, Erdogan has a keen interest in maintaining control of the party when he moves to Cankaya, the presidential residence in Ankara. After all, this is his party. By delegating power to a party confidant, Erdogan would enjoy greater policy autonomy with limited checks on his power.

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Recent Turkish history provides us with a very similar example from the late 1980s. When Turgut Ozal left the Motherland Party (ANAP) in 1989 to become the first civilian president of Turkey, he was intent on maintaining full control over his party. Yildirim Akbulut became the “yes-man” for Ozal as the leader of the party and the prime minister. Erdogan will have to follow suit and have a trusted loyalist head the party, as the Turkish constitution proscribes political impartiality and bars any political affiliation for the president.

An alternative scenario would be a Putin-Medvedev-style swap between Erdogan and the outgoing president Abdullah Gul. The latter is a long-time friend of Erdogan’s and one of the founders of AKP, with sizable clout over the party base. A recent poll indicated that the party base favours Gul’s leadership of the party by an overwhelming majority, while Erdogan serves as president. Although a scenario involving Gul’s leadership of the party most likely provides the party with the best chances of survival in the post-Erdogan era, Erdogan would most likely have concerns over his control diminishing substantially.

Opposition candidates

The most serious opponent of Erdogan in the election is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. He is an academic by training and also was the former head of the Islamic Conference Organisation (OIC) between 2004 and 2014. Ihsanoglu’s nomination was a surprise to many. He displayed a largely apolitical image in his tenure as the head of the OIC and during his bureaucratic ventures, and was not associated with a political party until his presidential candidacy was announced.

The two main opposition parties chose Ihsanoglu for two reasons. First, Ihsanoglu offers what appears to be a challenge to Erdogan on the conservative front. What some have called the “conservative turn” of the opposition is based on the conviction that for any challenger to have a meaningful chance of winning the election, s/he has to win support from the support base of the AKP while simultaneously appealing to the opposition parties’ bases.

Second, Ihsanoglu successfully puts forward the image of an apolitical and impartial president that the opposition parties are looking for. He is someone with the potential to check executive dominance of the AKP. Such a presidential profile is in line with a typical parliamentary system where the president occupies a largely symbolic position.

The biggest challenge before the Ihsanoglu is the opposition’s fragmentation. The opposition parties, especially the CHP, suffer from cabals of intra-party division. A number of groups within the CHP were quick to distance themselves from the party position on Ihsanoglu’s candidacy.

Kurdish vote and Demirtas

While Ihsanoglu’s presidential bid is aimed at winning the election, Demirtas’ candidacy is significant for other reasons. After decades of ethnic Turkish nationalism and marginalisation of the Kurdish minority, Demirtas’ candidacy symbolises the normalisation of ethnic politics in Turkey. Issues as sensitive as demands for autonomy, greater political rights, and official dealings with the PKK have become the mainstays of the Turkish political landscape at the highest order. Demirtas will not win the election; however, his candidacy will certainly contribute in pushing Kurdish politics onto Turkey’s big political arena.

The Kurdish vote in these elections is important for one more reason: It will be decisive in a possible runoff.

Increased societal polarisation in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests and the corruption scandal late last year pose great challenges to Erdogan’s presidency. While a polarised society ensures that Erdogan’s support base remains solid on the eve of elections, going beyond the 45 percent which the AKP got in the local elections in March will require convincing other constituencies to support his candidacy.

The most feasible option at this point appears to be the Kurdish vote behind Demirtas. Polls indicate that his vote hovers around 7-8 percent. If Erdogan does not obtain the majority in the first round of the election as some polls suggest, Demirtas and his supporters will face a choice between Erdogan and Ihsanoglu. Some reports suggest that Erdogan is hoping to bank on the Kurdish vote as a thank you for the secretive “peace process believed to be going on between the government and leadership of the PKK.

A possible victory for Erdogan with the support of the Kurdish vote will bring a significant shift in Turkish politics and pave the way for a more active Kurdish role on the Turkish political scene.

The first popular presidential election in Turkey is Erdogan’s to lose, and he is certainly aware of it. What is lurking behind is a possible shift from a parliamentary system of democracy to a semi-presidential system, entrusting more power to the president. Whether Erdogan will succeed in that is soon to be seen.

A Kadir Yildirim is an assistant professor at Furman University. His main research interests include economic liberalisation, democratisation, political Islam, politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @akyildirim

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