2 July 2014, 16:35

Turkey's historic election: Erdogan on the road to become first popularly elected president

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, announced on Tuesday that the popular yet controversial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will take part in the first direct presidential election slated for August. Although, at the moment presidency in Turkey is largely symbolic, Erdogan expressed his wishes to make it vastly more powerful if he gets elected.

Few doubt that the prime minister will win the race. Halil M. Karaveli, senior fellow with the Turkey Initiative at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Ersin Kalaycioglu, professor of political science with an interest in comparative politics and Turkish politics, predict that he is likely to emerge victorious after the first round of election that will be held on August 10.

Prof. Ersin Kalaycioglu points out that the outcome will depend on the voter turnout. In the 2014 local elections with the participation rate of around 90 percent the AKP secured almost 43 percent of the vote. Voter turnout in August will not be as high due to several factors. Firstly, it is the middle of summer. Secondly, so far the presidential poll has failed to generate as much hype as local elections marred by scandals, primarily, various corruption charges against the prime minister. "There may not be that much motivation for the voters to participate in the election" at the moment. The professor warns against predictions saying that it all can change and adding that "we don't know how the campaign is going to go." Still the political analyst estimates that "if voter turnout drops to 75 – 80 percent, Erdogan can win in the first round by getting more than 50 percent of the vote."

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan has voiced his intention to shape the presidency into the most powerful institution in Turkey. To achieve that goal he will have to amend the constitution. That will only be possible if the Turkish parliament, and the Grand National Assembly, supports the changes. At the moment the Justice and Development Party doesn't have the votes to do that. Not only do they need a 60-percent majority, the new constitution or the amendment to the existing one will have to be approved in the national referendum.

Prof. Ersin Kalaycioglu warns that there is a slight chance that Erdogan will violate the constitution before the next general elections in 2015. That will result in a deep constitutional crisis.

"Turkey's next prime minister will be the most powerful, critical and strategically located member of the political elite."

In any case Erdogan will not be able to change the constitution on his own, because the president doesn't have the power to do that. If elected, the current AKP leader will no longer be controlling the majority in the parliament. Consequently, he will need the new prime minister help him. That person, whoever he or she is going to be, will have to agree to devolve his powers to the president in order for Erdogan to get the powers he wants. That makes the next prime minister "the most powerful, critical and strategically located member of the political elite in Turkey," says Prof. Kalaycioglu.

Halil M. Karaveli shares the view that Erdogan will change the constitution and turn the presidency into a powerful office. "He vowed to be a very active president who will focus on two main areas: stimulating a peace process with the Kurds and fighting against what he called the "parallel state" the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen."

Mr. Karaveli explains that "there is a power struggle going on in Turkey between the two main elements of the Muslim conservative movement: one is headed by Erdogan and the other one by Gulen." It intensified and spilled out into the open at the end of the last year. The expert points out that one of the advantages that Erdogan has is that the military is on his side.

Mr. Karaveli believes that Erdogan will be a "formidable" president due to a combination of charisma and popular support. However, he will have to face several challenges and great challenges those will be. Firstly, he will have to try keeping control of his own party. If history is any indication, it will be quite a task. Those who became presidents traditionally lost control of their party. Secondly, Erdogan will have to deal with the Gulenists. Thirdly, he will have to maintain the momentum in the Kurdish peace process and ensure that he has upper hand in dealings with the Kurds.

Taking into account recent developments in Iraq, the situation in the region is dire. "Sectarian and ethnic dynamics is in motion around Turkey. See what's happening in Syria and Iraq," says Mr. Karaveli. He warns that there is a risk that the instability will affect Turkey.

Who is Erdogan running against?

Two other candidates have entered the presidential race. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is supported by the two major opposition parties, Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Ihsanoglu is a well-educated, well-rounded conservative with an academic and diplomatic background. He was born and raised in Egypt. He is known for his research of Islamic history of science. Ihsanoglu is fluent in Turkish, Arabic and English. Overall, "he has immaculate intellectual credentials as opposed to Erdogan," says Prof. Kalaycioglu.

Erdogan on the other hand is very parochial and doesn't have such intellectual stature. So it will be an interesting choice for the people, the political analyst concludes.

"If elected president, Erdogan is going to rule the country which is going to be very divided."

The Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) announced that its leader Selahattin Demirtaş will run for president. It argues that theirs is the only real choice, because he represents the non-conservative society in Turkey. The party hopes that Demirtaş will attract the voters who would have supported the social-democratic candidate if Republican People's Party had nominated one. Still, chances of Demirtaş are rather slim.

Prof. Kalaycioglu emphasizes that Erdogan's chances of getting elected in the first round of presidential election are boosted by the fact that there are three candidates.

Mr. Karaveli states that Erdogan will be the next president but he is "a highly polarizing figure." More than 50 percent of the population does support him. What is no less important is that "almost 50 percent of the population is very much against him." As a result, the expert is sure, Erdogan "is going to rule the country which is going to be very divided."

Why is Erdogan going to win then? Two major factors have to be considered. Firstly, the economic situation is Turkey is good, hence the "majority doesn't feel the urge to vote against Erdogan at this point in time." Secondly, some of those who support the opposition don't want to vote for a conservative candidate. Thirdly, "there is no one in Turkey today who can stand up to Erdogan. No single other politician can rival his charisma and status."

"There is no one in Turkey today who can stand up to Erdogan. No single other politician can rival his charisma and status."

Although both experts agree that Erdogan is likely to win in the first round, Prof. Kalaycioglu suggests looking at what might happen if the two major candidates are tied around 40 percent each. Then, he believes, the Kurds will be "the king maker in the second round." Whoever they support is likely to be the next president of Turkey. The Kurdish candidate will have around seven percent of the vote. And he will back the candidate depending on the deal cut between the Kurds and one of the major parties. "That puts Kurds in a very interesting position of deciding who the next president is going to be."

It should be mentioned that the Kurds and the ruling AKP party are involved in what is known as the resolution process, or peace process. Some say that due to that deal, Kurdish politicians will throw their weight behind Erdogan. Other experts point out that the outcome will depend on the deal that the opposition offers the Kurds.

Both Prof. Kalaycioglu and Mr. Karaveli believe that the presidential election will be an historic event. And if Erdogan wins he will become the first Turkish president to be elected by the people and not the parliament.

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