Analysis of Upcoming Presidential Election in Turkey: Erdogan in for Possible Win

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reza Solat
Ph.D. Candidate of International Relations and Expert on Turkey Issues

Turkey is currently in the midst of election campaigns which precede the country’s forthcoming presidential election. This round of presidential polls is of unprecedented importance compared to its predecessors because a host of the most important “first” instances is going to happen through this election. First of all, this is the first time in the history of the Turkish republic that the president of the country will be chosen by people, not by parliament deputies. Secondly, the upcoming election will see a serious rivalry between two Islamist candidates for the first time in the country; this situation has had no parallel in the past history of Turkey. The issue becomes more interesting when taking into account that one of the candidates has been nominated by the main secular political party of Turkey, which is loyal to legacy of [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk. Thirdly, this is the first time in the whole history of Turkey when a former Kurdish member of the parliament and political activist has been nominated to run for president. And finally, this is the first time that Turkey’s citizens who live outside the country are allowed to cast their votes for an election that is held inside the country. Apart from details of the election, every one of these issues is considered important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, debates about the need to change the election system of Turkey and, in general, the entire system of governance in the country have been there for many years. As a result, a great number of small and big changes have been made under the rule of the incumbent Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in order to achieve this goal. There has been a lot of both opposition and agreement to changes in the constitution, especially with regard to those articles which are related to definition of citizenship in Turkey as well as judicial and criminal issues. At present, the main concern of the opposition parties is that Erdogan may try to institutionalize what they call the Islamic dictatorship within a legal framework, which would not be necessarily democratic. The aforesaid changes are now in gear in order to alter the system of government from a parliamentary one to a presidential system, which would be more like the American model.

The second reason is the candidacy of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. Being an Islamic and international figure as well as a prominent academic in Turkey, he has been nominated as presidential candidate by the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). There are a few questions in this regard. In view of the deep-rooted party tradition in Turkey and the longstanding record of the Republican People's Party in the country, why this party has not been able to raise a powerful party figure during past years in order to nominate him as its presidential candidate? Isn’t this a sign of weakness and lack of strategic thinking among leaders of this party for the fulfillment of duties that would guarantee the survival of the party? Even before the upcoming presidential election, the aforesaid parties were looking for a candidate outside their party structure. This had already happened at the time when Ahmet Necdet Sezer was President of the Constitutional Court of Turkey. However, he was a political figure with characteristics that made him a favorite for the opposition parties and was also a well-known person in the country. The person currently chosen by the Turkish opposition parties is quite different from the person they chose about two decades ago. In fact, the main question now is why the Republican People's Party should choose for an Islamic personality after all consultations and opinion polls? Has the general fabric of the Turkish government actually become so different? Or fears about victory of Erdogan in the election and pursuit of the mere goal of preventing his success has prompted the aforesaid parties to go for an Islamic personality, who is not very famous inside Turkey, even at the cost of possible internal rifts? Why when opposition parties want to choose an Islamic figure, they do it in such a way that would expose them to people’s ridicule? According to the most pessimistic scenario, this measure by opposition parties has been taken in line with a covert agreement with Erdogan in order to help him win the election.

As for the Kurdish candidate, it should be noted that even if the whole 20-percent population of Kurds in Turkey voted for him, he would not be able to win the election. However, participation of this candidate in the election will be reminder of several points that will play into the hands of the ruling party of Turkey. First of all, it indicates institutionalization and advance of democracy in Turkey, of course, with an eye to appease the European Union. Secondly, Erdogan will try to win the votes of this group, especially if the election goes to a runoff because he will be a better option for Kurds compared to other candidates. Thirdly, the way Erdogan and his ruling party have chosen to deal with Kurds inside the country will provide them the support of Kurdish groups outside the country as well. Fourthly, the Kurds will have a better chance of engaging in political bargaining as a result of the self-confidence and the opportunity that has been offered to them. The point, however, which should not be forgotten here is the historical background of the way Turkish officials have treated the country’s Kurds at sensitive junctures. Throughout its history the government of Turkey has shown that whenever it needs or deemed appropriate, it has taken advantage of Kurds and their temporary cooperation by giving various promises to them. However, when it has achieved its goals, all those promises have been forgotten.

There are also a number of general points, which should be taken into account here. According to election law of Turkey, every person who wants to cast his/her vote during an election should be present in their city of residence. Therefore, every date that has been officially announced for any election has elicited a lot of official and unofficial protests, especially from the Turkish opposition, because on those dates, many people have been actually on vacation and away from their cities of residence. As a result, election turnout has been less than expected. Secondly, the result of the election can be very interesting and even unpredictable. For a long time, Erdogan has been planning to become Turkey’s president and has done his best with an iron will and without sparing any effort to win a categorical win in the upcoming presidential poll. He was so resolute in his pursuit of this goal that throughout developments that took place on December 17, 2013, he officially announced that anybody trying to use those developments against him or his party will be indicted. On the other hand, the presidential election is quite different from local municipal elections because votes cast by people are different from votes given by parties because people’s votes are more diverse.

Another controversial issue is the process of the election. It includes the way candidates are screened and election is held, and also the way it will come to an end. Will candidates continue their competition if the election goes for a runoff or will one of them withdraw in favor of the other? According to the Turkish election law, if one of two elected candidates withdraws from the election in a runoff, then a referendum will be held. In other cases, two candidates who have won the highest vote in the first round of the election will continue the competition in a runoff. To win the election in the first round, each candidate will need to win an absolute majority of the votes, that is, at least 51 percent of all the votes cast.

Another issue is the result of the election. If Erdogan wins the election, he will show no resilience in the face of his opposition. He has already indicated this since a long time ago both in words and deeds, especially in his famous speech which he made from the balcony of his house after winning the municipal elections. The opposition is also afraid of further restriction of social and political liberties. On the other hand, the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party is also an important issue. If Putin-Medvedev model is repeated in Turkey, a good future will await the party; if not, the possibility of splinters in the ruling party, especially when Erdogan is president, will be very high. More than enjoying real party solidarity and structure at its high level, the Justice and Development Party is formed around the personality of Erdogan. As a result, many observers firmly believe that in case he is not at the helm of the party, it will fall apart. At the same time, it doesn’t seem that Erdogan is willing to allow for any division in the Justice and Development Party even during his term in office as president.

Turkey is moving toward realization of the goals it has defined to achieve by 2013, which have been delineated on a background of Neo-Ottomanism. A possible win by Erdogan in the upcoming presidential election will speed up that march. In reality, however, the nomination of an Islamist figure by the opposition parties shows that the course of movement and internal structure of the government and its plans will not undergo remarkable changes. However, in case of victory, Erdogan will have more power and motivation to achieve the goals set for 2013. On the other hand, Erdogan, who is forecast to be the winner of the forthcoming presidential poll, has called the election as a new birth and new beginning for Turkey. He has also promised that in case of being elected as the country's president, he will take a tough approach to all groups that are considered a threat to the national security and territorial integrity of the country. Erdogan has also blamed Fethullah Gülen – a Turkish cleric who is currently living in a self-imposed exile in the United States – and his supporters for being behind many protests and negative developments that the country has experienced in recent years.

Key Words: Presidential Election, Turkey, Islamist Candidates, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Republican People's Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Kurdish Candidate, Justice and Development Party, Neo-Ottomanism, Fethullah Gülen, Solat

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*Photo Credit: Daily Times, Daily Sabah

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