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Erdogan may win presidency but no promise of expanded powers

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could win the election for the president in the first round of voting scheduled Aug. 10, but his plan to turn Turkey into a presidential system is not guaranteed.

Turks seem to lack excitement heading to the polls in August to elect their first head of state by public vote. The three candidates that will run in this election in less than a month are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s candidate; Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, joint candidate of the opposition parties, primarily the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); and, Selahattin Demirtas, the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) candidate.

Erdogan is considered the likely winner. One reason is that the opposition failed to nominate a well-known, charismatic front-runner to stir up excitement. Ihsanoglu is still trying to build his name recognition. As the former secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) however, the CHP insiders speaking to Al-Monitor say Ihsanoglu is the best candidate to divert conservative support away from Erdogan. “The more the people know him, the more they will like him. The conservative base is reacting positively to him. There is still time to change the expected outcome of this election,” one CHP insider told Al-Monitor.

Yet Ihsanoglu’s election campaign announced that he won’t hold any public rallies, casting doubts as to how he will be able to reach out to people in such a short period of time. “This opposition is really something,” Mehmet Akarsu, an Ankara resident, told Al-Monitor. “How come they can run a presidential campaign with no public rallies? Why are they so passive in showing off their candidate? Did they believe he couldn’t win it, and therefore decided not to invest in his campaign?”

Ihsanoglu runs his election as the direct opposite of Erdogan. “It is time to end abuse of religion. It is time to end making politics for the sake of religion,” Ihsanoglu said July 16. “People want to relax. We shall no longer turn these issues into a conflict or disagreement. This nation has also successfully overcome these difficulties.”

Erdogan, on the other hand, continues to keep the “headscarf issue” on the public agenda, and frightens the people that the day he leaves office, they will not be able to freely exercise their religion and wear their headscarves.

Unlike Ihsanoglu’s lack of name recognition though, Demirtas has been for the past decade the co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and a well-known name. Although his vision document for the presidency grabbed attention with its humanitarian touch, he is considered a less serious contender than Ihsanoglu, because many suspect his links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which cost Turkey more than 40,000 lives over two decades. The candidates need an absolute majority vote in the first round of elections to win, and it looks unlikely under these circumstances for Demirtas to secure such across-the-board public support.

Adil Gur, head of the Istanbul-based A&G public survey firm, which has built a strong reputation for accurately forecasting election results, believes that the vision documents that all three candidates announced will not affect how people vote. “People vote not based on what is written in these vision documents, but whether they consider these candidates to be the right choice to do the job,” Gur told Al-Monitor. “They also listen carefully to what they promise the people.”

While Erdogan primarily promises changing the parliamentary system into a presidential one through a constitutional amendment, the other two candidates want to perfect the parliamentary system. Gur, however, argues that the Catch-22 even in a strong Erdogan victory in the August election is that it would not guarantee that he could change the constitution, ending the parliamentary system and turning it into a “presidential” system. “People are against making such constitutional change, not because they’re concerned about a growing authoritative or dictatorial tendency in Erdogan, but because they perceive presidential system as a federation or a confederation and that only rings the bell in their heads where Kurds seek partition,” Gur told Al-Monitor. “Therefore, it does not look promising for Erdogan to change the constitution in this direction.”

According to the current legislation, Turks will elect a “head of state,” not the “president.” In English, the difference is not clear, but in Turkish the “head of state” means “cumhurbaskani,” which means an official who has more of a supervisory role, with no direct responsibility over any domestic or foreign policies, which are decided by the government. “President” means “baskan,” an official who has direct responsibility in domestic or foreign policy, and certainly has more leverage than “the head of state” in determining the direction of the country. 

And with this change of reference also comes a regime change which does not look to be happening quite so fast and quite so easy — despite Erdogan’s unwavering success at the ballot box.

Gur also stresses that because of the opposition’s inability to create excitement for this election, Erdogan continues to manage public perceptions in his favor and that will automatically show up at the ballot box. Therefore, like Gur, many analysts in the Ankara beltway foresee Erdogan winning the election Aug.10 without it going to a second round, scheduled for Aug. 24. Yet these analysts wonder what this will mean for the AKP the day after, and whether Erdogan will continue to have the same stranglehold over the party management and the state affairs.

Ihsanoglu is trying to hit hard on Erdogan for creating polarization in the country that has no comparison in the past. “We will need to plant the seeds of respect, to be respectful of the government, the judiciary and all the segments of society. If elected, I will work to improve these relationships in the framework of respect,” he said.

Demirtas agrees. Since he knows well that he won’t be able to propose a constitutional change (that is government’s job to do under the current rule of law), he is campaigning on perfecting the country’s democratic norms, calling it “a new life” — where majoritarian conformity can become democratic plurality. “We demand a Turkey where we can build a new life that all peoples live freely with each other,” he said. “Turkey is at a crossroads. Either state authority will further strengthen, or radical democratic change will prevail.”

When Abdullah Gul was assigned to the presidency by the parliament in 2007, AKP applauded his oath of office symbolizing an end to oppression for the country’s pious Muslims. With Gul, the country’s first lady was represented by a headscarfed woman for the first time. Although it looks unlikely though, a Demirtas win in August would also mean a Kurd was elected to the country's highest office — tearing down a taboo and sending a strong message for Turkish-Kurdish unity.

Erdogan, however, is a strong candidate and has persuaded the masses that without him there will be no peace with the Kurds, and the violence will continue at a time when Iraq and Syria risk losing their territorial integrity.

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