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The shape of things to come in Turkish politics

By Dr Marc Herzog.

Turkey's first ever direct elections for the presidency held on August 10th ended according to general expectations. The country's current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won with almost 52% of the vote, thus securing victory in the first round of balloting. His two challengers, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoðlu and Selahattin Demirtas; only managed to garner 38% and 10% respectively.

The prime minister's campaign was conducted at full speed with the full resources of the state at his disposal and the clear support of most of the public and private broadcast media. Meanwhile, Ihsanoglu, a respected but little known academic theologian chosen strategically by the centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP) and the nationalist, right-wing National Movement Party (MHP) to attract more votes from the conservative, pro-religious base, struggled to find a voice that could resonate beyond those parties' voters. The combined vote-share of both parties in April's local elections had been 43%. Erdogan built his campaign on a platform promoting a narrative of steep economic improvements and general prosperity in the country as well as a deeply polarizing rhetoric that sought to shore up the conservative Sunni voting base by emphasising the otherness of his opponents. In doing so, his candidacy also attracted a lot of support from the MHP's core electoral base in the Anatolian heartland.

On the other hand, Demirtas, the long-standing leader of the pro-Kurdish political movement and the People's Democratic Party (HDP), campaigning on a liberal-left platform, was appealing to many people and proved his mettle as an attractive public figure in the political arena. Gathering almost 10%, more than any party rooted in the Kurdish political movement normally attracts, this holds out the possibility that the HDP could emerge as a new, potent liberal-left force in Turkish politics with Demirtas at its helm.

Held in the middle of Turkey's traditional holiday season, there was an unusually low turnout of only 73% for the elections, leading to speculations that many people had not wanted to sacrifice their vacations to return to vote in their hometowns. It may also be that the certainty of Erdogan's victory in the election deterred many people from turning up at the ballot box. A second surprise was the very low turnout from Turkish people living abroad. From the approximately 2.8 million strong community of eligible voters, barely 10% decided to vote.

This is the 7th election in total that Erdogan has won since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he leads was first elected in 2002. In his almost 11 years in power, he has presided over a country that has seen immense economic and infrastructural development and which has become a much more significant actor in international and regional politics. However, the country has also become steadily more authoritarian and deeply polarized, especially in the last 4 years. The widespread Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, which have sporadically re-occurred, attest to this. The last year was especially tumultuous in Turkish politics. Allegations of corruption reaching to the highest level were publicly fielded against the government in December 2013. The terrible mining disaster of Soma in May, killing 301 people, was seen to be handled badly and callously by the government and the situation across the border in Syria's civil war has significantly deteriorated with a militant religious insurgency now having also swept into Iraq. Importantly, as well, Turkey's economic growth has declined in recent years due to domestic and international turmoil and may develop more serious problems in the near future.

In the aftermath of Turkey's first ever direct election for the presidency there are many questions circulating as to the future direction of the country's political system. Firstly, the government has by August 28th to pick a new prime minister, at which time Erdogan will assume his new presidential office. While it is certain that he would favour a candidate that he would be able to control easily, such a choice could also weaken the AKP's public image in the looming national elections, due to be held in July 2015. A useful comparison can be made here with former Prime Minister Turgut Özal, a titan of Turkish politics in the 1980s and early 1990s, who became president in 1989. In doing so he handpicked a prime minister, Yildirim Akbulut, that he could easily influence. Özal's choice, however, significantly weakened the Motherland Party (ANAP) and was a factor in it losing the dominance it previously held in Turkish party politics.

Secondly, it is certain that one of the big objectives of the next government will be to change the constitution in order to shift Turkey along towards a more fully presidential system. At present, the presidential office is relatively weak vis-à-vis the legislature in terms of its power. It is clear that the current prime minister would want to significantly bolster the office in order to retain his dominant hold over Turkish politics. In order to achieve this within the frame of law, more than 330 of the Turkish parliament's 550 members would need to vote through a series of constitutional changes. At present the AKP occupies only 313 seats in parliament and it is unlikely that opposition parties would lend their support to legislate these constitutional changes. In that sense, the next general elections will be key to determining what shape Turkey's political system will acquire.

The ill-fated presidential campaign of the conservative Ihsanoglu has aroused deep anger within the MHP and especially the CHP, which sees itself as entrusted with the safekeeping of Turkey's secularist legacy. There is already a leadership challenge under way in the CHP. Although the AKP government has stated that it would not seek to call early elections, doing so while the opposition parties are experiencing a climate of disarray and disillusionment would clearly benefit it.

This is the environment in which Turkish politics will be moving in the next year. It remains to be seen how this shift towards a presidential political system under the rule of Erdogan will affect the crucial issues that the country is currently facing in its domestic and foreign politics.

August 2014