North Africa, West Asia

Turkey's presidential election candidates

An overview of the strengths and weaknesses of Turkey's presidential candidates, and of the electorate's views, indicate that Erdoğan will be the victor of the upcoming elections on 10 August 2014.

Oguz Alyanak Umit Kurt
8 August 2014

The first and – if one pays attention to the percentages Erdoğan obtained in the pre-election polls – possibly the only round of the Turkish presidential elections is only a few days away. As a result of the 2007 amendment to the Constitution, for the first time in history, Turkish constituents will be responsible for electing a presidential candidate instead of parliament voting on their behalf. The upcoming elections carry symbolic value, because up until the 1980s the position was mostly “reserved” for army generals.

The following is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the three candidates. Our aim is not only to familiarize the reader with the candidates but also to explain why public opinion tends to see one candidate in particular—the current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—as the victor of the upcoming presidential elections.

Candidate #1: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The current Prime Minister of Turkey has held his position for twelve years. Having won consecutive general and municipal elections – three each – and two Justice and Development Party (AKP) proposed referenda, the 60-year-old Erdoğan enters the presidential elections with an insurmountable record of political success. Despite the many challenges Erdoğan has faced in his political career, he has shown cunning in playing the cards that can win the hearts of the majority of Turkish constituents.

His winning streak is not one to overlook, as the electorate like winners. In a winner, they see qualities of a leader who not only dreams, but also has the capacity to turn dreams into realities. That this winner is also popular with the majority of Turkish parliament adds to his capacity to pass legislation with the least amount of resistance. The leader carries his electorate further on the path of creating a “stronger Turkey”, a goal that Erdoğan himself has set for the centennial of the founding of the Republic of Turkey, namely the “Turkey 2023” campaign.

In a winner, the electorate see the possibility of realizing successful national projects: including but not limited to, massive projects such as building nuclear power plants, connecting the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea through a channel, building Europe's largest airport, installing an elaborate subway system, military infrastructure, national opera houses, etc…each contested by different segments of society yet with little to no impact on the outcome. While the projects he foresees may appear destructive dreams to his opponents, they are reasonable ambitions. Well aware of this, Erdoğan utilizes discourse that reassures his electorate that only by electing him, as the dreamer and miracle maker, can Turkey continue to prosper. Or, in Erdoğan's words as uttered in his most recent Istanbul rally: “We have shown the people that if we want [something] and believe [in it], it ceases to exist as a dream.”

Moreover, the capability to always end up on the winning side gives Erdoğan the well-earned image of a stable figure. Furthermore, the resilience of the Turkish economy during the global financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession – as opposed to the pre-Erdoğan crisis of 2000/01 – speaks both to Erdoğan voters' hearts and to their pockets. Who would want an emotionally or economically uncertain future if there already exists an example that satisfies the constituents? This was clear from the outcome of the most recent municipal elections. The Erdoğan-led AKP (the election was more about Erdoğan than the AKP, considering that he attended the majority of the pre-election rallies as the main speaker) won the elections, including metropolitan municipalities where the competitors competed collaboratively for the votes (i.e. proposing joint candidates), which is fairly unusual in Turkish politics.

Erdoğan's success till now has added to his stability as a leader, but more importantly, it imbues him with charisma – a gracious and divine quality that is attributed to him by his electorate. It is no surprise that in the eyes of many, Erdoğan is a "God-send", he is God's grace [Allah'ın lütfu]. Turkey may be a secular country, but Turkish politics rarely functions secularly. It is no coincidence that in a recent rally (in Tekirdag), Erdoğan put up an exorcism-like show on of bringing a fainted woman back to consciousness by having her brought to him to shake her hand in front of a large crowd. Whether the “show” was set-up is a debate we are less interested in, but those in the audience seemed to enjoy it nevertheless.

While divination is a resource that Erdoğan skillfully employs, one should also keep in mind that the kind of Islamic discourse that interferes with politics in Turkey is also not – and probably has never been – by the book. It is our belief that Erdoğan (and his electorate) care little about his following of Islam, but rather how he prioritises religion in politics. Unlike other presidential candidates, Erdoğan need not convince anyone of his piety. This is a point that analyses on Erdoğan often forgo. Yet it is necessary to remember that what makes him successful is the proximity of his discourse to the kind of Islam that the majority of constituents in Turkey find best suited to their needs.

Here, the valid criticism – particularly within the context of the presidential elections, which, in its Turkish translation (Cumhurbaşkanlığı Seçimleri) connotes being representative of "the people" (cumhur) – is that his policies do not resonate with a larger majority – leaving him as a candidate who tends to exclude as much as he includes. Whether we like it or not, Erdoğan's politics of not reaching out to a larger audience – which includes peoples such as Armenians, Jews, Kurds or Alevis – fits flawlessly into a system that prioritizes the hearts that are won over those that are lost and left in frustration. Erdoğan's utilization of hate speech, as in shouting out to the leader of the opposition, "Come out and tell us all that you are an Alevi", which in any democratic regime is – and needs to be – considered a shortcoming, works to his advantage. This itself is an indication of his destructive potential for the democratic system in Turkey, which we have also seen in action on various occasions, including the Gezi Protests of summer 2013. However, Erdoğan's populist attitude resonates well with his constituents who represent the necessary majority of the populace to win him the title of President.

Candidate #2: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu

Next on the list is Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, whose candidacy caught many in Turkey by surprise. An independent candidate backed by the opposition parties, such as the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) and the nationalist National Action Party (MHP), the 70-year-old academic Professor Doctor İhsanoğlu previously served as the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an institution representative of the Islamic world. That the AKP as a whole, and particularly the current President Abdullah Gül, lobbied for him which makes his candidacy even more interesting. In some ways, Erdoğan is competing against an old friend, who he portrays as a bitter enemy.

While İhsanoğlu's previous role in an Islamic institution and his proximity to members of the AKP has caused friction among secular-minded Turks, particularly among members of the CHP who were initially divided over his candidacy, İhsanoğlu's image as a scholar of Islam is a clever strategy utilized by the leader of the opposition to compete for the religious electorate in Turkey. Aware of this danger, Erdoğan attempts to delegitimize İhsanoğlu's candidacy by arguing that scholarly Islam is not representative of people's Islam: "Born in Cairo. Came to Turkey at the age of 30. What makes him a man of these lands? Who do you think you are fooling? We are the men of these lands. We are born here, raised here, and we have worked here," argued Erdoğan at a recent rally in the eastern Anatolian city of Van. Whether Islam à la İhsanoğlu will ring a bell for the constituents is uncertain, but his candidacy nevertheless pushes Erdoğan to justify his legitimacy over the use of religious capital in his populist rhetoric.

What adds further strength to İhsanoğlu is his intellectual capital. As a prestigious professor who has represented Turkey in the upper echelons of the academic world (i.e. faculty member at the University of Ankara, chair of department of History at the University of Istanbul, visiting Professor at various European and American universities) as well as international politics (i.e. OIC), İhsanoğlu's professional credentials make him a strong presidential candidate. His intellectual capital is far superior to that of Erdoğan. However, it is equally questionable whether İhsanoğlu's intellectual expertise would work against Erdoğan's practical experience as a politician. Previous elections have shown that the Turkish constituents tend to vote not only for populist but also pragmatic leaders. They tend not to give a new candidate a try if the previous one provides them with sufficient means to economic comfort. Rather than voting for credentials, the electorate tends to cast its vote based on "on the ground" achievements. Erdoğan's 12-year rule as the prime minister is a point that proves this tendency. While one could argue that a presidential title is more symbolic than administrative one, Erdoğan has made it clear that he intends to assume greater powers once he is the president. Why then would the electorate be expected to vote for a president who will not work alongside the (AKP) government, while an already existing candidate will?

Furthermore, İhsanoğlu's lack of expertise in Turkish politics has weakened his candidacy. The proponents of Erdoğan's rule as the Prime Minister like his attitude as an unruly leader. They appreciate his vulgar language particularly in the international arena – his accusations of Israel of tyranny, support for the Muslim Brotherhood, criticism of Europe and the US for their involvement in the escalation of violence in the Middle East and their alleged attempts to cause unrest in Turkey (i.e. the Gezi protests). As a former Secretary General of the OIC, İhsanoğlu remains reluctant in raising his voice over developments in the Middle East, which could be a precious reservoir to take votes from Erdoğan during the elections. However, İhsanoğlu remaining silent on issues that matter to the Turkish electorate, is received as a weakness in the eyes of Turkish voters.

Candidate #3: Selahattin Demirtaş

Selahattin Demirtaş, the 41-year-old candidate of the People's Democratic Party (BDP), is without a doubt the most colorful candidate of this election term. The youngest of the three, Demirtaş represents what could have previously been considered a dream: the Kurdish Presidential candidate of a Kurdish political party. A lawyer by profession who led the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakır, Turkey, Demirtaş went on to serve as a member of predecessors of HDP, such as the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BTP). The former was closed down by the constitutional court and the latter was disbanded by the party members and reformed under its current formation (BDP).

Since his introduction into politics, the Kurdish movement in general and Demirtaş in particular has shifted away from politics based solely on ethnic (Kurdish) identity to one that is more interested in solving larger social issues and therefore more connected to the problems of the population at large. Contrary to Erdoğan, who skillfully utilizes a rhetoric of exclusion to appeal to his electorate, the co-chair of HDP (which promotes gender equality in party politics) employs a rhetoric of reconciliation and prioritizes pluralism. This coming from a candidate primarily supported by the Kurdish electorate shows how Kurdish politics have transformed over the years to become more inclusive.

Moreover, Demirtaş represents a political approach that is also more outspoken on issues that lie outside the scope of the two other candidates, such as gender equality in politics, environmental issues, LGBT rights and Syriacs' and Alevis' religious freedoms. In that, Demirtaş comes out as a candidate who is more on par with the changing demands of a new generation, particularly those that are not attracted to the allure of Islamic capitalism. Demirtaş also stands as the only courageous candidate in speaking openly about class politics. During his Eid al-Fitr visit to the tombs of those killed in the Soma mining disaster, Demirtaş pointed out how the population at large suffers from economic inequalities due to the capitalistic nature of AKP rule. While the class-based nuances in Demirtaş' speech are reminiscent of the early days of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which was established as a Marxist faction in 1975, Demirtaş' emphasis on class is less focused on the Kurdish working class and more on Turkey's working class as a whole.

Nevertheless, Demirtaş's call for a new, peaceful and democratic life, as explicated by his slogan, has two obstacles that need to be overcome in order to compete with Erdoğan. First, Demirtaş does not have a monopoly over Kurdish votes. While his BDP may be enjoying the majority of Kurdish votes, Erdoğan's AKP is next in line, competing for the same votes. As the leader of the majority party, Erdoğan has taken audacious steps forward (as well as backwards) in negotiating with the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Segments of Kurdish voters have been attentive of this process and trusted Erdoğan as the only political leader who has the power (parliamentary majority) in finding a solution to Öcalan's imprisonment. While one needs to be very critical in examining how the AKP uses the "Kurdish question", as a tactic to control Kurdish votes, one should also keep in mind that not all Kurds are distanced to the AKP’s capacity make their dreams come true.

The second crucial question is whether the electorate at large would accept a new face for the Kurdish movement, as embodied by Demirtaş. Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan is not willing to accept that Demirtaş is sincere in his more inclusive approach. In a rally earlier this month, Erdoğan asserted that the HDP does not use the Turkish flag in its assemblies and works under the shadow of a gun. While Erdoğan's characterization of Demirtaş is skewed, the fear he emphasizes may nevertheless resonate with the majority of Turkish constituents who continue to equate Kurds as separatists. 


Turkey needs a fresh approach to politics. Out of the three candidates, only Demirtaş is representative of unconventional ways of thinking and talking about politics. His dynamism, which İhsanoğlu greatly lacks, brings hope that there are alternatives. Yet, how hopeful should one be? The winner of this election will be the candidate who displays the greatest expertise in reading the dynamics of the majority of the Turkish constituents and Erdoğan appears to come first in this category. Unlike Demirtaş or İhsanoğlu, Erdoğan also has the most to lose. During his 12 years as Prime Minister, he may have won the hearts of the majority of the Turkish constituents, yet he also made many enemies out of his previous allies, like the members of the Gülen community. Aware of the dangers of not winning and having to face previous accusations of corruption and explaining his involvement in shady deals with corrupt Middle Eastern leaders, this time without immunity and institutional support, Erdoğan is willing to spend extra time rallying and polarizing Turkish constituents to obtain the results he needs.

Overall, however, one should keep in mind that the upcoming presidential election is a referendum. It reflects people's choice. And Erdoğan as the winner of the previous Turkish referenda also comes out as representative of his electorate's will. He certainly is not representative of the national will as he claims in his slogan; and this is a crucial problem that Turkish democracy will continue to face in the upcoming years under Erdoğan's helm. However, it is unlikely that Erdoğan's electorate—representative of a growing 50 percent in previous election—is as worried as other constituents may be about the shortcomings of Turkish democracy. 

Time will only tell. The first round of elections will take place on 10 August 2014. If none of the candidates gain a simple majority, the second round will take place on 24 August 2014 between the two leading candidates. 

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