The Erdogan Presidency and Turkey’s Political Future

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Wikimedia Commons) On August 10th, the people of Turkey elected the country’s head of state for the first time in the history of the modern Turkish republic. While parliamentarians selected the previous eleven presidents, this time Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who has led Turkey since 2003— was elected to office directly by voters. Erdogan ran on a platform with the explicit aim to transform the country into what he has dubbed a “New Turkey.” As in previous elections, the former prime minister ran a slick campaign spanning the entire country and was elected with approximately 52 percent of the national vote. His victory came at the expense of two other presidential candidates: Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who was supported by a consortium of political parties including the two main opposition parties in parliament and received approximately 38.5 percent of the vote, and Selahattin Demirtas, who ran as the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) candidate and garnered a surprising 9.5 percent.

Erdogan’s ascendancy carries with it the potential for unprecedented changes to the country’s political system. Upon taking office on Thursday, August 28, he will also seek to transform the presidency from the largely ceremonial role it presently serves into a position that spearheads the executive branch of the Turkish government. If he succeeds, the revamped presidential office will have expanded powers and, as a result, may be less accountable to parliament and judicial oversight. Despite an easy victory on the campaign trail, however, actualizing Erdogan’s dreams for the presidential system may be more difficult.

Since becoming prime minister, Erdogan has ruled over a single-party government that has enacted sweeping changes to Turkey’s economy, infrastructure, and governing institutions. As Erdogan is fond of reminding crowds during public rallies, the average per-capita income, which was at barely $2000 when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, is now nearing $11,000. Inflation, which had crippled economic development and strained the livelihood of ordinary Turkish citizens, has been brought down to single-digit figures. Most importantly, Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership has evolved into a more streamlined and citizen-friendly state, with access to modern hospitals and roads, a thriving economy, and social mobility amongst the laboring classes at levels hitherto unseen.

Erdogan’s past policy successes proved instrumental to his recent presidential win. Supply-side economics has ensured that a broad spectrum of votes consistently goes to the Erdogan camp. Added to this, Erdogan’s campaign benefited greatly from the perks of running as an incumbent. Increased access to broadcast media and the organizational capacity of cities and provinces under AKP local government to host his visits were two crucial factors that allowed Erdogan to project his message to voters more clearly and further afield. That message was simple: though voters have trusted and believed in Erdogan thus far, much more needs to be done to continue to transform Turkey into a major global power. It is this promise that underlies Erdogan’s push for an unencumbered presidency, which he perceives to be the necessary instrument to help achieve it.

It has been Erdogan’s personal desire to assume the presidency and become the first popularly elected leader to transform the country at a foundational level, in much the same way that Ataturk did. The “New Turkey” envisioned by Erdogan is focused on constructing the world’s first industrialized and modern Muslim state, economically developed, culturally attuned to the country’s Ottoman and Muslim heritage, and broadly aligned with its western allies in NATO. Erdogan has set himself the target year of 2023—the centenary of the founding of the republic—as his initial date to fulfill this ambition. Such a vision, however, does not enjoy a broad societal consensus. The Gezi protests of 2013 were a strong indication that many Turks do not agree with Erdogan’s vision and that his leadership requires further deliberation and consensus-building.

Erdogan views his wide margin of victory in the presidential election as a vindication of his record and leadership style, and will likely press on with his crusade to expand the powers of the presidency as a result. Doing so, however, will require either creating a new constitution or making changes to the present one. Although a majority in parliament, the AKP does not have sufficient seats to make such constitutional changes, and elections which could help increase AKP seats to the requisite three-fifths total in order to enact constitutional reform are not due to be held until mid-June of 2015. To circumvent this first obstacle, Erdogan has nominated Ahmet Davutoglu, currently Turkey’s foreign minister, to become the next chairman of the AKP and, consequently, the country’s next prime minister. Davutoglu is likely to work harmoniously with Erdogan by fast-tracking the new administration’s legislative agenda through parliament and conform both publicly and privately to Erdogan’s wishes.

The second obstacle confronting Erdogan is Turkey’s outgoing president, Abdullah Gul. Gul has already declared his intention to return to the AKP after his term is concluded. This likely implies, first, that he seeks to succeed Erdogan as chairman and, second, that he hopes to get elected to parliament once again and become the next PM. Gul may not be the type of PM Erdogan desires, however, as there is a good chance he will not be content to serve as a mere yes-man for the president. Gul also commands respect and support from amongst the ranks of the AKP. Recently, and just days prior to Thursday’s planned transition of power, Gul voiced his displeasure at being shunned by members of the AKP who are strong Erdogan supporters and wish to see him marginalized.

For now, the scope and breadth of Erdogan’s presidential power, and his designs to expand it, are uncertain at best. Both the country’s domestic and international financial markets have declared that Turkey has entered into an era of political uncertainty that is likely to continue until 2015. Much will depend on how—and if—Gul and Erdogan work to resolve their competing ambitions and accommodate one another’s political designs. The outcome of the 2015 general elections will also exert significant influence on Turkey’s political future.

With the threat of ISIS knocking on Turkey’s door, an increasingly slowing economy, and the resolution of the country’s prolonged domestic Kurdish conflict all pending, Turkey must act quickly both domestically and internationally by collaborating with regional and international allies. No matter their ambitions, the country’s new president, as well as its current leadership, have their work cut out for them.