Turkey’s President: New and Improved?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to Turkish expatriates at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the UETD, the Union of European Turkish Democrats, at the Lanxess Arena on May 24, 2014 in Cologne, Germany. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to Turkish expatriates at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the UETD, the Union of European Turkish Democrats, at the Lanxess Arena on May 24, 2014 in Cologne, Germany. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

The presidential elections on August 10 will be a crucial turning point in the history of Turkish democracy, as it marks the first time the president of the Republic will be directly elected by the people. After almost two years of tense discussions, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has managed to change the system to a semi-presidential one—although it has officially not been named as such—in which both the president and prime minister are chosen through popular elections.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will stand against joint opposition candidate Ekmeleddin in the polls; and in the intervening weeks, the Turkish public will have the opportunity to evaluate the candidates and judge their skills and experience, before voting in accordance with their preferences.

But the election itself will not be the only novelty this new, semi-presidential system will bring. If the speeches of government officials are anything to go by, Turkey will likely continue to make further changes to the political system after the elections, such as awarding greater powers to the president and reducing those of the prime minister.

Turnout is expected to be high, and there has been widespread support for the direct election of the president, because it is seen as a move that will curb the influence non-political actors have had when parliament elected presidents in the past.

While critics say the reforms brought in by Erdoğan and the AKP have unduly reduced the powers of the elected parliament, the previous system also had its downsides: it often brought instability and allowed non-political actors, including the military, to gain power and influence politics, most obviously in the 1970s.

The military’s influence in Turkey’s corridors of power continued after the 1980 coup. Under late president Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party, the institution’s grip on the government was loosened, but the activities of the “deep state” continued. By the 1990s these activities—including the assassination of Kurdish businessmen and Leftist leaders currently being tried in Ankara—coupled with a poorly managed economy, had brought Turkey to a deadlock once again.

At the turn of the millennium, the Turkish people decided to take a strong stance against this. Army generals choosing presidential candidates behind closed doors and giving daily speeches as though they were independent political commentators caused enormous public frustration, to the point where the electorate voted in the first party with an outright majority in over a decade: Erdoğan’s AKP.

Now, accepting his nomination as a candidate for the presidency, Turkey’s prime minister said that this year’s first direct election of a Turkish president marked “the end of the era of tutelage,” a reference to pressure from military and judicial bodies on parliamentarians when electing the president.

Still, many political analysts believe this year’s presidential election will be only the first step in minimizing the chances of gridlock in Turkey’s political system. The AKP government wants to adopt a new constitution, which would outline a different arrangement of relations between the president, the government, and parliament. They are seeking a political system remarkably similar to that of France—even though in that system, the possibility for gridlock exists due to conflicts between the president and the government. The difference is that, in France, rules and norms to clarify the division of powers that have been put in place.

Turkey’s population approved partial amendments to the current constitution (which was introduced under military rule, albeit after a referendum) in 2010, and polls show that a civilian constitution is still demanded by the majority. Despite this, nationalists continue to fear that the state could compromise with the country’s Kurds in drawing up a new constitution, while Kurds fear that a new constitution will also fail to guarantee their rights.

Unlike past presidents, the next president—who will have to get more than 50 percent of the vote—will have more responsibilities and rights, and he will face pressure to use this power and authority; but both the political system and public opinion will hold him accountable.

Erdoğan, who is widely predicted to win, seems eager for the challenge. At his first election rally, in Samsun, he proclaimed that the president is not supposed to just put his feet up in Çankaya, Turkey’s presidential palace. Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters in the city from which Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, began the war of independence, Erdoğan instead pledged to continue his legacy as prime minister by contributing to economic and social development in the country.

“Until today, eleven presidents have served the country. After Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, all presidential elections caused chaos,” he said.

In contrast, when İhsanoğlu was asked if he would intervene in major political issues, he said such things would not be his duty but the government’s. He also trails Erdoğan by more than 20 points, according to opinion polls released in June, just before both men launched their campaigns.

It is clear that for many, moving to a directly elected presidency is progress. But the real question is whether people will elect a candidate who will be deeply involved in the country’s issues, or one who leaves things to parliament.

Turkey is in a complex and crucial stage in its history: it is on the verge of resolving its decades-long struggle with its Kurdish population, and it has to deal with wars in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Now, its people have to choose between two opposing visions: On the one hand, there is Erdoğan and his extensive list of proposed reforms; on the other is İhsanoğlu, a candidate fronted by two parties that fought each other for decades—but which have nominated a joint candidate in the hope of preventing those reforms from taking place.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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