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President Erdoğan? Turkish Prime Minister Announces Presidential Candidacy

Andrew Szarejko contributed to this post.

On August 10, Turkey will hold its first direct presidential election. On the last possible day for candidate registration, July 1, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the much-anticipated announcement that he will run for president—a post that he has long coveted. It is also a position that is constitutionally less powerful than his current one. That is unlikely to stop Erdoğan, should he win, from continuing his governing style—divisive rhetoric coupled with centralization of power—from the presidential Cankaya Palace.

Electoral Environment: Domestic Polarization, Regional Instability

The election will be held amid mounting regional and domestic tensions. With two neighboring countries, Syria and Iraq, engulfed in civil wars and Turkey itself experiencing ever-greater social polarization, Erdoğan might be expected to purse moderation and conciliation as part of his electoral strategy. Those expectations, however, are likely to be disappointed. Today’s announcement of Erdoğan’s electoral bid was a reassertion of his majoritarian, winner-takes-all understanding of democracy and his undaunted aspirations for regional leadership.

Domestic Polarization

Recent years of AKP rule have been dominated by Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian ruling style. Resentment toward Erdoğan’s divisive and majoritarian manner of governing exploded on three occasions last year:

  1. during the Gezi Park protests that began in May 2013;
  2. following the revelation of corruption allegations against the government in December 2013;
  3. and after the death of 301 miners at the Soma mine in May 2014.

A politician beset by such scandals and pressures might seek a conciliatory approach, winning over his critics and mending fences.

But this is not Erdoğan’s style. He helped his party decisively win the March 2014 local elections, in the thick of a corruption scandal, by promising to defeat his enemies. His approach to this election—and the presidency, should he win it—is likely to be similarly unapologetic.

Erdoğan has carried out a wide-reaching campaign against members of the Gülen movement, an Islamic social movement that was once closely aligned with the AKP, a relationship that has since dissolved. Members of the Gülen movement are embedded throughout the state bureaucracy, and are believed to have instigated last winter’s corruption scandal. Erdoğan has sought to purge government institutions of Gülenists, denouncing them as “traitors” and members of a “parallel state” intent on overthrowing the Turkish government. He even embraced the term “witch hunt” to describe his pursuit of the Gülenists.

The ruling AKP has capitalized on domestic crises as opportunities to increase state control of traditionally independent, bureaucratic entities. Prior to the March local elections, Erdoğan’s party pushed through parliament laws that attacked judicial independence, expanded the powers and indemnity of the intelligence service, and gave the government the authority to censor the Internet. The latter new authority was wielded immediately to impose a social media blackout before the local elections, by blocking access to Youtube and Twitter. Despite such measures, those elections were tainted by still unexplained irregularities that favored the AKP.

In a clear signal, both of these trends—the persecution of enemies and erosion of checks and balances—were on display in the days prior to Erdoğan’s announcement that he is seeking the presidency. Two days before declaring his candidacy he bluntly warned Gülenists, “There are still Gülen-affiliated ones in the judiciary…. They should know that no one, no group, no foundation will betray as they did and turned into a pawn on certain platforms and organizations’ game. Those traitors should be afraid of us [the government].” The parliament promptly passed another 105-article judicial package that would increase government control over the judiciary further and make purges of suspected Gülenists even easier.

Such tough posturing has won Erdoğan four elections in the past, even as it has ever more bitterly divided the country. It will characterize this election as well. But it is not likely to stop there. For one thing, there is yet another election—for parliament, this time—looming next year. But the divisiveness and confrontation are not just an electoral ploy for Erdoğan; they define his governing style. Given his actions of the last year and his stated intentions to enhance and utilize the powers of the presidency, it should be clear that Erdoğan’s illiberal tendencies and authoritarian streak will not subside if he assumes the presidency in August.

Regional Instability

In the realm of foreign policy, Erdoğan’s pursuit of “zero problems with neighbors” has backfired, leaving Turkey isolated in an increasingly unfriendly neighborhood. With sectarian conflicts now raging in both Syria and Iraq, Turkey finds itself more insecure than at any time in the last two decades. This instability also creates serious economic problems for Turkey. Syria and Iraq were both major trading partners and overland routes for Turkish exports into the rest of the Middle East. With Turkish trucks no longer able to travel on their roads, trade has dried up. At the same time, Turkey has been saddled with paying for the cost of its generous acceptance of Syrian refugees.

But though his policies are partially responsible for the current state of regional affairs—and for this reason have been unpopular among Turks—Erdoğan refuses to admit any fault. Over the last three years, the AKP’s foreign policy has been increasingly sectarian, evolving to favor the emergence of Islamist Sunni regimes wherever possible, especially in Syria. In pursuit of this goal, Turkey has repeatedly been accused of supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist groups. But those same groups have created the chaos in Syria and Iraq that degrades Turkey’s security and floods it with refugees.

Yet, it was only last month, after significant international pressure, that the Turkish government declared one Sunni extremist group, the al Nusra Front, a terrorist organization and began to seek help from European countries in stemming the flow of European radicals that traverse through Turkey en route to waging jihad in Syria. And when it comes to Iraq, Erdoğan finds himself unable to break with his Sunni co-religionists and condemn ISIS. Indeed, he has shown little recognition that Turkey’s regional approach might need to be recalibrated.

The bluster and assertiveness that mark Erdoğan’s domestic politics extends to foreign relations. Just last weekend he declared, “Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar look up to us. They see us as their future, their hope. I believe wholeheartedly that we will walk towards the future with great determination and courage by knowing that we are under such a responsibility.” Erdoğan’s vision of a Turkey that leads the Middle East, though repeatedly rebuffed with dangerous consequences over the last decade, will not fade.

Erdoğan’s Path to the Presidency

There is one exception to Erdoğan’s divisive and confrontational approach that proves the rule: he is willing to offer concessions to Turkey’s Kurds. This stems from his calculation that he will need their votes.

To win the presidency, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate passes this threshold in the first round of voting on a ballot with multiple candidates running, the top two candidates will run in a second round. In the March 2014 local elections, Erdoğan’s party received 45 percent of the votes, more than any other party but not enough, assuming a similar outcome in the presidential race, to secure a first round win. To avoid a runoff election and emerge as the dominant victor, Erdoğan will need to attract additional votes. He appears convinced that he can find these among Kurdish voters. With some 6 percent of the vote in the March elections, this important constituency could, in fact, put Erdoğan over the top in August. But Kurdish support for an Erdoğan presidency, or at least their votes for him in the first round, is far from assured.

For more than a year, Erdoğan has been pursuing a peace deal to end the three decade-long Kurdish insurgency, waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Kurds, however, have grown increasingly dissatisfied that the concessions on political and cultural rights promised by the government have yet to materialize. As a result, the fragile cease-fire has begun to fray with resurgent violence between the PKK and Turkish security forces in the Southeast. To address this situation, and with an eye towards garnering greater Kurdish support for his presidential bid, Erdoğan has introduced new legislation. The bill, “Law to End Terrorism and Strengthen National Togetherness,” aims to provide a legal basis for negotiations with the PKK and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Demonstrating the importance Erdoğan attaches to the bill, he instructed his AKP bloc in parliament to postpone the start of parliament’s recess from July 1 to July 25 in order to ensure the bill’s passage. Öcalan praised the bill as a “historic development,” while the opposition Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP), although not objecting to the content of the bill, described it as a “maneuver to grab the Kurdish vote at the presidential elections.”

The Kurds, however, may have no intention of throwing their lot behind Erdoğan. On Monday, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) announced its own candidate for the presidency: party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş. “There are two who are running for the elections,” said Demirtaş, “those who represent the statist’s ideology and lord it over the people, and the people’s candidate. We are coming from within the scope of the people.”

Polls, although often unreliable in Turkey, predict that Demirtaş will earn only approximately 10 percent of the vote. The question is whether this is enough to force elections into a second round, where the Kurds could act as the kingmakers in the race between Erdoğan and opposition candidate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. It might not be. The polls also estimate that Erdoğan would comfortably win the August election in the first round, exceeding the 50 percent needed to win outright and with a substantial lead over İhsanoğlu. Turkish pollster Genar has Erdoğan at 55.2 percent with İhsanoğlu at 35.8 percent, while another poll conducted by MAK Consultancy placed Erdoğan slightly higher, at 56.1 percent.

What Kind of Presidency?

Although Erdoğan has long aspired to the presidency, taking that position poses a major problem for him. While Turkey’s president has considerable powers, he does not control the government, the ruling party, or the flow of money in the country.

He would not be the first Turkish president to encounter this predicament. To get around it, both Turgut Özal (1989–1993) and Süleyman Demirel (1993–2000) tried to appoint pliable placeholders who would carry out their will as prime ministers, with mixed results. Özal managed to run the country from the presidency for roughly two years. But in the end, both of these presidents eventually lost control over their parties and the government.

It is to avoid this fate that Erdoğan had hoped to usher in constitutional changes that would strengthen the presidency before assuming the post himself. Having failed in that, he has nevertheless made it clear that he will seek to wield the maximum power he can. “The system has changed,” he has said, “there won’t be any interregnum, because that would be the executive office.” He also promised that, if he were to be elected, “I will be the people’s President. I will use my full constitutional competences.”

Erdoğan’s success in that will almost certainly depend, in part at least, on who would succeed him as prime minister, if he becomes president. One possibility is the current president, Abdullah Gül. It had long been speculated that Erdoğan and Gül might attempt such a Putin-Medvedev switch. But by last summer, it seemed unlikely. One of the most politically salient developments to emerge from the Gezi protests was the increasingly clear schism between Erdoğan and Gül. Gül adopted a much more conciliatory tone toward the protestors, putting him at odds with Erdoğan and setting off speculation that he was positioning for a potential political competitor to the prime minister.

But expectations that Gül would become his own man, politically, and emerge as a kinder, gentler alternative to Erdoğan within the AKP have been dashed. As president, Gül has signed all of the increasingly authoritarian measures passed by parliament, including the latest erosion of judicial independence, and any protests he might have made against Erdoğan’s power grabs have been more symbolic than effective. Now, speculation is once again rampant that Gül would become prime minister to President Erdoğan.

There is little reason to expect that, either as presidential candidate or as president, Erdoğan will adopt a different approach than the one that has been on display for more than a year now: divisive and confrontational on all issues, foreign and domestic. The only thing that might change, however, is the amount of power Erdoğan will wield after this series of elections. There are several structural constraints on his ability to continue to unilaterally determine the course of Turkish politics.

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