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President Erdoğan?

On August 10, Turks go to the polls in an election widely expected to deliver another electoral victory for Turkey’s strongman, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His election is likely to be the result of a now-typical combination of circumstances: a formidable campaign machine, a weak opposition, a strong economy – but also a widespread use of administrative and financial resources that have tilted Turkey’s electoral playing field, and means that the country’s elections may still be free, but certainly not fair. Erdoğan will view his election as a coronation; as a confirmation that he is now the undisputed leader of Turkey. Few will note that he is technically moving to a less powerful position – and in this sense, the main implication of his move to the presidential palace is likely to be a further de-institutionalization of power in Turkey.

Erdoğan’s Ambition

Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions have been Turkey’s worst kept secret. In fact, they go back to 2007. At the time, Erdoğan was known to entertain the possibility of moving to the Çankaya presidential palace. But several factors forced him to give up on the idea. First, he had not yet consolidated power, and faced strong opposition from Turkey’s General Staff, who mounted an ill-fated website-based challenge to his party’s ambition to have a politician with an Islamist background elected president. Second, his party largely opposed the idea, fearing that it would no longer hold together if Erdoğan moved to the presidency. And finally, while the Turkish presidency is by no means ceremonial, power is vested overwhelmingly in the office of the Prime Minister.

While the president is not the Chief Executive, there appears to be something about the post that attracts politicians. In 1989, Turkey’s last strongman, Turgut Özal, was elected President by parliament. He tried to keep control over his party and parliament by appointing a pliant Prime Minister, Yıldırım Akbulut. But Akbulut was overthrown in an intra-party insurgency only two years later, ending Özal’s control over the Government. Notwithstanding, Süleyman Demirel tried the same tactic upon Özal’s death in 1993. He left the party and government to Tansu Çiller, who became Turkey’s first and so far only female Prime Minister. But Çiller failed to toe Demirel’s line, and he, too, rapidly lost control over the party and government. Yet both Özal and Demirel continued to be thorns in the eyes of their successors, checking government activity when they saw fit from the Çankaya palace.

Erdoğan has indicated that he has internalized these lessons. Indeed, they help explain Erdoğan’s determined efforts over the past half-decade to change Turkey’s constitution and create a presidential system of government – something he began advocating in early 2010. He proceeded to concentrate power increasingly in his own hands, and undermined any and all alternative sources of power. This prompted a growing rift within his own Islamic conservative camp, alienating centrists as well as the influential Fethullah Gülen movement. As his chances of changing the constitution dimmed, he sought a pact with the Kurdish party in parliament, effectively trading vague promises of concessions on Kurdish self-government for support for his presidential ambitions.

Crucially, however, Erdoğan failed to achieve his goal. Moreover, as the confrontation with the supporters of Fethullah Gülen within the state institutions intensified, Erdoğan concentrated further powers in the office of the Prime Minister. As a result, many observers, this author included, assumed he would decide against seeking the Presidency, and would instead seek a fourth term as Prime Minister (internal party by-laws prohibiting him from doing so could have been easily changed, citing ‘popular demand’). From a purely rational point of view, remaining Prime Minister would seem to make sense: Erdoğan would continue to hold power, and he could campaign for the AKP in the 2016 parliamentary election, which the nominally non-political president cannot.

Why, then, did Erdoğan choose to run? In all likelihood, the answer is twofold. First, the allure of being Turkey’s first popularly elected President was too strong to resist – or rather, the urge of preventing anyone else from having that mandate may have been too compelling. And second, Erdoğan has likely concluded that institutions no longer matter. He has successfully reduced the parliament and cabinet of ministers to rubber-stamping and implementing his wishes, respectively. Decisions are taken by Erdoğan with a small coterie of close, informal advisors. Whether the Constitution vests power in the Prime Minister or President, Erdoğan has effectively reduced the importance of rules and institutions, establishing a system that is neither parliamentary nor presidential, but simply personalized: an Erdoğan system.

Thus, Erdoğan seems to believe that moving to a position with weaker constitutional powers will strengthen his dominance over Turkey – simply because of the popular mandate he has consistently made into his claim to power. Observers of Erdoğan agree that he is possessed by a majoritarian understanding of democracy (typical of modern Islamism), one that implies that if half of the people have voted for him, everyone else should fall in line.

Are Turkish Elections Fair?

This claim to a popular mandate, however, requires that elections be free and fair, and that is where Erdoğan runs into problems. This has traditionally not been an issue in Turkey, unlike many of its neighbors. Granted, the state tended to ban various political forces from contesting elections, denying registration and closing down parties. But before this spring’s local elections, the integrity of the vote had never been questioned. Yet in these local elections, a number of irregularities were recorded, most importantly concerning the mayoral election in Ankara, a tight contest in which the incumbent AKP mayor was declared the winner in spite of credible allegations of fraud.

But even when elections in Turkey are free, they are decidedly not fair. The AKP has amassed a level of administrative and financial power that is unprecedented in Turkey. To cite just one example, when Erdoğan gathered huge demonstrations last summer in response to the Gezi Park protests, AKP municipalities used municipal buses to bus attendees to rallies – often against their own will. The ways in which the AKP has benefited from the administrative advantages of incumbency are too many to mention. Moreover, earlier scandals and numerous leaked documents and phone conversations (released by anonymous Gülen supporters in the bureaucracy) over the past year have shown that the AKP doubles as a large money laundering machine, using proceeds from corrupt tenders, Iranian oil-for-gold sales, and the like to buttress party coffers, finance campaigns, and buy votes. And the same leaks also displayed how closely the AKP, and Erdoğan personally, monitors and sculpts what Turkey’s mainstream media is allowed to say and do. Take only Turkish state television TRT as an example. Over three days in July, state TV provided over 500 minutes of coverage of Erdoğan, against single digits for the two opposition candidates. Worse, when opposition National Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli castigated TRT’s bias in a televised speech, TRT abruptly cut its live broadcast of the speech.

Thus, the average Turkish voter is immersed in a media environment that is essentially pro-Erdoğan propaganda, calibrated to project an aura of a new father of the nation; where one has to make an active effort to find dissenting opinions; and where the ruling party’s candidate enjoys an administrative and financial advantage that by far surpasses what is acceptable in a modern democracy. These elections are by no means fair, and whatever percentage of the vote Erdoğan gathers should be viewed against this light. In sum, Turkey’s election campaign is reminiscent of Venezuela rather than Europe.

Opposition mistakes

This should not obfuscate the fact that Erdoğan is popular with a considerable chunk of Turkey’s electorate – the urban lower classes and the conservative rural population, primarily. He has a devoted following, whereas the opposition has not had its heart in this fight.

Indeed, as previously reported on this blog, the two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), nominated a joint opposition candidate, a respected Professor and former Chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. This must have seemed a good idea at the time: taking the fight to Erdoğan’s turf, by denying him the argument that the opposition is ungodly. But while it was hoped that İhsanoğlu might attract centrist AKP voters, there are as yet few indications that this is happening. By contrast, his nomination has been met with dismay, to say the least, among the base of both opposition parties. Some MHP voters, polls show, may defect and vote for Erdoğan, finding İhsanoğlu not nationalistic enough; and much of the CHP secular base is likely to boycott the election rather than vote for, as they see it, another Islamic conservative nominated by their own party.

Indeed, the election will hinge on turnout: it should be recalled that in the spring local elections, more voters voted for the CHP and MHP, put together, than for the AKP. This provided hopes in the opposition that Erdoğan could be forced to a second round. This was already a tall order, giving the AKP’s advantage in getting out the vote. If CHP and MHP voters will line up at the polls, this could happen; but if many stay home, they will essentially hand Erdoğan a first-round victory.

The Demirtaş Surprise

If the nomination of İhsanoğlu appears to have been a miscalculation, and his campaign lackluster, this cannot be said for the other opposition candidate: Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş, a forty-one year old former human rights activist from Diyarbakir, was a co-Chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), before that party merged with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an initiative to broaden its appeal beyond the ethnic Kurdish community. The HDP is an explicitly socialist, feminist and pro-LGBT party, and seeks to combine support from secular and nationalist Kurds with other minority representatives and leftists. Demirtaş has run an inspired campaign, and is likely to garner support from among some of the leftist groups that joined the Gezi Park movement. Should Demirtaş’s vote approach ten percent, it will mean a major breakthrough for the Kurdish nationalist movement of which he is a product, and confirm that the Kurdish political movement is not on a seriously challenge to Erdoğan and to the Turkish state, but is increasingly building a broader political architecture and filling a void left by the absence of any truly left-wing political party in Turkey.


Whether Demirtaş will be able to affect the outcome of the election remains to be seen. The best he can hope for is to gather enough voters that would otherwise stay home to deny Erdoğan a first-round victory. Demirtaş has pledged to urge his voters to boycott a second round, and a significant chunk of the Kurdish voters appear inclined to heed this call. A second round would in itself be a cinch in Erdoğan’s armor, showing he did not receive his coveted majority support. While this outcome is unlikely, it could potentially make a second round very interesting.

Svante Cornell (@SvanteCornell) is a task force member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative and the director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.

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