As expected, on August 10, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) decisively won Turkey’s first directly-elected presidential election. He received just about 52 percent of the votes, falling somewhat short of the 55 percent that the polls were predicting.
At a time when Turkey’s neighborhood is in a state of chaos and the country is deeply polarized, what will his next steps as president be? Will he transform Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one? Will he be able to simultaneously run his party, control the prime minister and be the president of Turkey? Will he be able to overcome the authoritarian and abrasive politics of the last two years and replace it with politics reminiscent of the mid-2000s characterized by consensus building and liberal reforms? Or will it be a case of more of the same?
Traditionally, presidents were elected by members of the Turkish Parliament, and had limited powers. However, Erdoğan has been aspiring for a strong presidency since AKP won close to half of the votes at the national elections in June 2011. While serving as prime minister, Erdoğan attempted to write a new constitution, but resistance from opposition parties together with the May 2013 Gezi Park protests and the December 2013 corruption scandal prevented him from achieving his goal. Consequently, his fallback plan has been to emerge triumphant from the 2014 presidential elections,use the presidential powers in the current constitution to its full extent and aim to get AKP to emerge from the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015 with enough seats, enabling him to see to the adoption of a new constitution. This new constitution would transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one and give Erdoğan the possibility to run the country until 2023, the Republic’s centenary.
Erdoğan’s Opponents: İhsanoğlu and Demirtaş
Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu and Selahattin Demirtaş were Erdoğan’s main opponents. Although neither constituted major challenges for Erdoğan, each represent something significant for Turkey. The left-leaning secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) joined forces to support İhsanoğlu’s candidacy. İhsanoğlu, born and raised in Cairo, a prominent religious scholar, and a secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation from 2004 to 2010, was seen as the best candidate to attract former AKP members, and votes from the wider conservative electorate. Though he lacked political experience and visibility in Turkey, he managed to receive more than 38 percent of the votes. This performance falls short of the 44 percent that CHP and MHP garnered at the local elections in March this year, but would still be considered as a respectable performance.
Demirtaş, a prominent figure amongst Turkey’s Kurdish minority population and a keen partner in government efforts to find a political solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey, ran for presidency on a secular and somewhat leftist agenda, sensitive to the interests of especially minorities and women. He received almost 10 percent of the votes, one point short of most poll predictions, but almost twice the amount that his party, Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), received in March local elections. This suggests that Demirtaş received support not just from Kurdish, but also Turkish voters, a very significant development in terms of politics in Turkey.
How Has the Turkish Political System Worked in the Past?
With Erdoğan’s victory, Turkey is now at an important crossroad. Since World War II, Turkey has been a parliamentary system. The prime minister was the head of the executive branch of government and the president, elected by the parliament, held a ceremonial role. This changed after General Kenan Evren led the 1980 military coup d’état. In 1982, Evren introduced a new constitution that empowered the president with some executive powers intended to exert some control over civilian politicians. However, with the exception of Evren and his successor, Turgut Özal, subsequent presidents, Süleyman Demirel and Ahmet Necdet Sezer, refrained from using these constitutional powers in any conspicuous manner. So where did the notion of a directly-elected president come from?
The idea of a president elected directly by the electorate, rather than by the parliament, is an outcome of the military’s interference in politics in 2007. As the end of the staunchly secular and politically shy Sezer’s term approached, the military in a rather undemocratic manner, tried to prevent the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Gül, from becoming president. The military and the judicial establishment deeply distrusted Gül’s, as well as the AKP’s, commitment to secularism. The government overcame the challenge by calling for an early snap election that AKP won handsomely, opening the way for Gül’s election as the new president. Furthermore, the electoral victory encouraged Erdoğan to hit back at the military by calling for a referendum on whether future presidents should be directly elected by the people or by the parliament. Erdoğan’s initiative received support from 58 percent of the electorate, thereby quite decisively demonstrating to his opponents the very extent of his popularity while allowing him to emphasize the “will of the people” as the basis of his understanding of democracy.
The Campaigns: Two Approaches to Turkey’s Future
The 2014 presidential campaign unfolded as a competition between two political approaches to the future of governance in Turkey. The first approach, represented by Erdoğan, calls for a narrow and majoritarian understanding of democracy based on the notion of the “will of the people” (milli irade) at the expense of constitutional checks and balances and separation of powers. In return for such an authoritarian form of governance, Erdoğan promises a prosperous Turkey that will grow to be the 10th largest economy by 2023 and become a major regional, if not global power. It is with this in mind that Erdoğan aspires for a powerful presidential system dominated by him alone. The second approach, especially pushed for by İhsanoğlu, advocates the maintenance of the existing parliamentary system and warns that a hybrid system where both the prime minister and the president is elected directly by the people, risks creating instability, tension and polarization within the country. He advocated for a president who would be above party politics and who would focus on protecting freedoms and the rule of law.
Does Erdoğan Have a Mandate?
What will Erdoğan do now? He is confident that he enjoys wide-spread popularity among the masses. However, it is difficult to conclude if the electorate went to the polls on Sunday with a referendum to change the political system in mind. If they did, then they did so with a rather slim margin. Nevertheless, it is likely that Erdoğan will interpret the results of the elections as an explicit approval of his political agenda, and will thus proceed to transform Turkey towards a presidential system. However, a number of challenges will be awaiting his project. The first and immediate challenge will emerge with respect to the next prime minister. As a prominent Turkish columnist put it, Erdoğan will want a prime minister who will always be “one step behind”. But will politics allow for this to occur? Can Erdoğan find a loyal and unquestioning prime minister? The current constitution requires the president to resign his/her political party affiliations. Once he takes up his position as president at the end of August, will he be able to continue to enjoy control over AKP from a distance? This is not a challenge to be taken lightly considering that there will be parliamentary elections in 2015 and the ranks of AKP will be quite restless both in terms of the selection of candidates, as well as the prospects of ensuring a victory at the polls. Lastly, with ISIS’s growing power, political instability in many neighboring countries, a troubled relationship with the European Union and the United States and continued bloodbath in Syria, keeping the Turkish economy on course may turn out to be Erdogan’s greatest challenge. The coming months are going to be critical in terms of whether Erdoğan will overcome these challenges and succeed in transforming Turkey’s political system. The outcome will illustrate if Erdoğan is actually bigger than Turkey or vice versa. However, whatever happens in the next few months, it will largely determine if in 2023, Turkey will celebrate its centenary as a liberal or illiberal democracy. In the meantime, the fact that Erdoğan plans to use a constitution that was drawn up under military tutelage to achieve his presidential ambitions is both ironic, but also not very promising in terms of Turkey’s democracy turning liberal.
Editor's Note: Ranu Nath, the Turkey Project intern in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, contributed to this piece.