A New Era for Turkey Under President Erdoğan
Listen to the audio companion for this Transatlantic Take here
After his team’s 1990 World Cup loss, English football player Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Likewise, elections have become a simple game in Turkey: a number of political parties and leaders compete and at the end Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always wins. Sunday’s presidential election was no exception. Prime Minister Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKParty), won the election in the first round and became not only Turkey’s 12th president, but also the first to be elected in a popular vote. Erdoğan’s next move will be to try to change the constitution to introduce a presidential system in Turkey. Whether he can achieve that goal remains to be seen, but doubtless a new era has begun in Turkey.
Erdoğan received 51.71 percent of the votes by attracting a significant portion of Nationalist Action Party (MHP) voters and support from small right-wing party constituencies, in addition to his AKParty base. He owes this victory to five factors. First, he is personally seen by millions of lower-middle income families as the driver of their socio-economic mobility. Second, he has managed to associate the past grievances of Turkey’s conservative citizens with his own grievances. Third, he did not face a candidate who aroused the enthusiasm of his opponents. Fourth, Erdoğan had much higher campaign resources than his two opponents. Last but not the least, he received significantly higher media attention, including from the public broadcaster, which by regulation was supposed to provide equal coverage to the three presidential candidates.
Erdoğan’s main opponent, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a former secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, was the joint candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), MHP, and several small parties. İhsanoğlu received only 38.56 percent of the vote. His candidacy was widely criticized by members of CHP and MHP and there is no doubt that the leaderships of these parties will now face serious challenges. Meanwhile, Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate supported mainly by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) managed to go beyond his party’s voter base with his moderate rhetoric and won 9.72 percent of the vote. While not very high, this represents a significant gain over the Kurdish Movement’s usual 6 percent vote share. This result may motivate the Kurdish political movement to adopt a more moderate approach in the future. With the election over, and Erdoğan elected president as expected, there are three related questions.
First, who will be the new AKParty chairman and prime minister? Second, when will parliamentary elections take place? And third, when will — if ever — Erdoğan attempt to change the constitution toward a presidential system? Erdoğan will obviously have a major say in who the next prime minister will be. He can either support a strong political figure, one who will hold the party together in the post-Erdoğan period and maintain current levels of support. Or he can go for a lower profile prime minister who will defer to Erdoğan’s leadership and share power with the president. Erdoğan’s first round victory may mean he will opt for the latter. He has already made it publicly known that he has no intention to limit himself to the presidential powers defined in the constitution. Until he can change the regime to a presidential system, he will likely impose a de facto presidential system through a prime minister who will not mind devolving powers to the president.
Erdoğan would ultimately like to change the constitution to introduce a presidential system. However he does not have the requisite 330 out of 550 seats in the parliament that would allow him to initiate a constitutional referendum, and none of the opposition parties seem willing to support him on this matter. Therefore, he will need to wait for the parliamentary elections and hope that the AKParty wins more than 330 seats. This brings us to the timing of the parliamentary election. The next one is scheduled for June 2015 and Erdoğan has already announced that he does not have plans for early elections. However, given the constraints on the Turkish economy, and the uncertainty over how the AKParty would perform under a new leadership, elections as early as November cannot be ruled out.
As the era of President Erdoğan formally begins, how will Turkey’s foreign policy affected? What about the Turkish economy? Last but not the least, in what direction will Turkish democracy evolve? One thing is for sure: we will never be short of questions when it comes to Turkey; these will be the subject of forthcoming GMF analyses.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.