North Africa, West Asia

Turkey’s political system under an Erdogan presidency

Erdogan is likely to win the upcoming presidential elections in Turkey, but he faces many challenges that will leave a mark on Turkish politics.

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan
1 August 2014

On 1 July, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party finally nominated its candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. The nomination of head of the party and head of government Recep Tyyip Erdogan was no surprise to either Turkish society or foreign observers. If Erdogan is elected, what does the future hold for Turkey, what kind of transformations might its political system undergo, and what implications will it have for Turkey’s democracy?

On 1 July, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party finally nominated its candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. The nomination of head of the party and head of government Recep Tyyip Erdogan was no surprise to either Turkish society or foreign observers. If Erdogan is elected, what does the future hold for Turkey, what kind of transformations might its political system undergo, and what implications will it have for Turkey’s democracy?


Worker walks past Erdogan poster in Istanbul. Demotix/ Chandra Prakash. All rights reserved.

There was little doubt that Erdogan would be handpicked to run this prestigious post for the next five years, with the right to run again in 2019. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Erdogan’s appearance in Turkish politics. In 1994 he was elected as mayor of Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, and since then he has become a household name. His ouster from his mayoral post in 1999 and subsequent four-month imprisonment only increased his popularity.

In 2002, his sixteen month-old Justice and Development Party party won the general elections by a landslide. Since then the party, widely referred to in Turkish as AK Parti (in contrast to other Turkish political parties, which are mainly referred to with three letters such as MHP, CHP, HDP etc.), has won all possible elections – three parliamentary, three local, two referendums, and one presidential. For twelve years – more than any other political party since the advent of multi-party politics – the JDP has dominated Turkish politics. Erdogan’s nomination was inevitable.

On 10 August, the ballot boxes in Turkey will be opened to elect Turkey’s twelfth president. Since 29 October 1923, when Turkey's first president Mustafa Kemal was elected, the following ten presidents of Turkey were elected by the parliament. However, after the October 2007 constitutional amendments, the president must be elected directly by popular vote. The presidential term is also shortened from seven to five years, with the right to be re-elected. Erdogan enters this race amid lots of frustration and ambiguity in the challenges that his presidential term will face.

Since at least 2007, Erdogan has vowed to produce a new constitution to replace the current one, adopted in 1982 by the generals. The adoption of a new constitution has become his idée fixe, particularly during the election campaigns and post-election debates. However, he has not been able to deliver his promise for several reasons.

After the 2011 parliamentary elections the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission was set up, composed of twelve members representing all four parties in parliament, with the primary task of drafting the new constitution. However, having agreed on almost 60 to 70 articles of the constitution and after several deadlines, the commission dissolved itself, openly admitting the impossibility of reconciling on articles dealing with hotly debated issues – governing system, language, citizenship etc. Since Erdogan’s party did not have the more than 330 seats in parliament required to send the preferred draft to a referendum, he had to admit defeat and shelve the idea for a better time.

The failure to adopt a constitution entails a further challenge for Erdogan – what kind of president is he going to be? Articles 104 and 105 of the current constitution define the duties and responsibilities of the president, and as broad as they are, the political weight of the Turkish president cannot be compared to that of the prime minister.

Erdogan’s rush to adopt a new constitution is therefore understandable, since he is striving to become the first popularly elected president after the adoption of a constitution that would put forward a presidential system instead of the current parliamentary one. This has yet to happen, and Erdogan has had to accommodate his ambitions within the political and constitutional realities on the ground and agree to become a president with less political leverage than his current position possesses.

Article 101 prohibits the president from being affiliated with any political force, which means that after the elections, Erdogan has to leave his party. This requirement entails another challenge for Turkey’s political system, since the departure of the ruling party's popular leader must leave the party with uncertainties. To exacerbate this even further, article 128 of the JDP’s charter does not allow party members to hold elected posts more than three times. This provision of the charter, which was upheld once again in May this year, affects at least 70 members of the ruling party.

In other words, 70 members, who are either founders or key figures of the JDP, cannot run for the next parliamentary elections in Turkey, scheduled for July 2015. With Erdogan gone to the presidential palace and 70 key figures spread out into different party and local administration positions, some observers foresee a major problem for the JDP in holding it together. Some even see clear parallels between  the eras of Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel when, after their elections as presidents of Turkey in 1989 and in 1993, their parties (Motherland Party and the True Path Party respectively) were either defeated in the elections or visibly weakened.

Thus, the future of the JDP and hence political stability is still in Erdogan’s hands, as he may revoke the three-term ban and abolish that provision before he goes to Çankaya Palace. On the other hand, there is little doubt that he will lead the party from behind the scenes, adding more complexity to Turkish politics.

After Erdogan’s departure a new cabinet needs to be formed. The current members can theoretically hold their positions until the next parliamentary elections, but the most important question is who is going to be the next Prime Minister. The observers agree that Erdogan would pick someone from his party who will be easy to manage. That might work until July 2015; after that Erdogan has to make some hard choices.

For that reason Turkey’s outgoing president Abdullah Gul can come to play an important role and save the party and the political system from upcoming instability. Gul is too popular to leave politics but he previously announced that he does not intend to exchange his position with that of the prime minister.

On the other hand, it is obvious that Erdogan wants to have both a manageable prime minister and a strong leader who can hold the party together. Obviously, Gul supporters within the party have been slowly marginalised since 2011. However, they can resurface to support Gul for prime minister once again (he was prime minister from the November 2002 election victory until Erdogan took the office in March 2003).

The Kurdish problem keeps creating profound implications for Turkish politics. Although it looks like Erdogan has found a modus operandi with the Kurds, it can only be a temporary solution. The recent calls by leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan for an independence referendum have a knock-on effect on Kurdish nationalism within Turkey too.

On the other hand, Kurds remain divided. Even though there is a Kurdish candidate (Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party) among the presidential nominees, his chances are slim. But his nomination is a bold move anyway.

Without Kurdish support, Erdogan will face real difficulties, not only in winning the first round of elections, but also in having an efficient first term. His efforts to work with Kurds need to go beyond the conventional small steps that he has been taking for the last few years. He has to do more to please the Kurdish constituency if he expects their cooperation.

On 16 June 2014, the two opposition parties in the parliament nominated the former secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu as a joint presidential candidate. Although some praised this move, many insiders and outsiders from both parties heavily criticised it.

Critics have pointed out that it was an indication that the major opposition parties are in disarray, and cannot overcome internal disputes to nominate their own candidates. The Republican People’s Party leader was particularly criticised as Ihsanoglu’s nomination was presented as his brainchild. Whatever the results of the elections, the leadership of the opposition parties will face new challenges from within.

This is more probable in the case of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party. After taking this position in May 2010, he is still having difficulty bringing the party together and his achievements during the 2011 general and 2014 local elections were also quite modest. The recent nomination was yet another indication that he is still incapable of giving a new boost to the party founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The recent polls show that it will be tremendously difficult for Erdogan to get the support of 50 percent of the electorate during the first round. During the initial campaign he already took the position of underestimating his opponents, a move very much in line with his methods of policymaking.

However, during the election campaign he has to make a shift from being a political leader to becoming a state leader. He has to position himself as an able consensus maker and not a troublemaker, he has to bid farewell to his authoritarian leadership style and radical rhetoric, he has to overcome his image of a victim and be a solution maker. The results of the 10 August vote will show what Turkish society thinks of him. If he is not successful during the first round, he will make the next attempt two weeks later, on 24 August.

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