The Aug. 10 Turkish presidential election — the first time the voters will directly elect their president — is unlikely to be a nail-biter. Nonetheless, this will herald a new era of constitutional crises and increased polarization. This is because Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, favored to win the election, has already indicated that he will try to govern the country from the presidential palace despite the fact that the constitution unequivocally empowers parliament and its selected prime minister as the center of executive power.
While it is not clear how Erdogan will achieve a transfer of power away from parliament, the outcome of the elections themselves will be key to his strategy. There are two other candidates of note other than him. His main competition, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, is the joint choice of the two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) has also filed a candidate, Selahattin Demirtas.
In the event that there is no clear winner in the first round, that is, someone getting more than 50% of the vote, there will be a second round among the two top contenders. Should it be necessary, the expectation is that Erdogan and Ihsanoglu would meet again in the second round two weeks later.
The real question is whether it is better for Erdogan to score a straightforward win on the first round with slightly more than 50% or go into the second round where he is likely to win with 60% or more. In light of the changes he wants to implement at the presidency, Erdogan might prefer resounding victory in the second round. Such a resounding margin of victory is easier to parlay as an extraordinary mandate for the first popularly elected president. Between his intuitive and domineering style that allows him to control the nation’s agenda and the print and electronic media that slavishly extol his deeds and ideas, a massive second-round victory would be used to justify the powers that he wants to incorporate into the presidency.
Once he assumes the presidency, the first six to 12 months are the most critical. Sometime after Erdogan resigns from the leadership of the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will have to convene an extraordinary convention to choose a new party leader who will then get the AKP ready for national elections in 2015. Until then, the country will have a prime minister handpicked by Erdogan. This person will have none of the experience and power Erdogan has accumulated over the last 12 years. Therefore, it is not unrealistic to assume that Erdogan will shape and direct and constantly interfere in government decision-making.
Erdogan’s 12-month strategy is to engineer, de jure or de facto, as much of a transfer of power from the prime minister’s office to the presidential palace as he can. The size of the mandate is important because it will enable him to run roughshod over the party, parliament and weak interim prime minister. There is another reason why this period is critical to him: Abdullah Gul, the current president, who has increasingly fallen afoul of Erdogan, is the only person capable of assuming the reins of the AKP and making a play for the prime ministership in the 2015 elections. Gul, unlike the others in the AKP, is a seasoned politician and an AKP cofounder. Were he to decide to make a bid, Gul would give Erdogan a run for his money and use the constitution to temper the powers of the new president. If Erdogan is unsuccessful in blocking his old ally from assuming the reins of the party and government, then the likelihood of constitutional crises rises considerably.
Arrayed against Gul, a majority of the party and the constitution will be Erdogan, who would use his mandate and the nepotistic network he has built up over the years through backroom financial dealings that include the press, nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, business organizations and individual business conglomerates that benefited from his largesse.
If Gul were to decide not to re-enter the political fray, then Erdogan would use this period to introduce formal changes to the constitution that would enable him to transform Turkey into a hybrid presidential system, possibly akin to the French variant. Whether he can succeed will depend on a myriad of factors that are too early to discern.
Erdogan in the meantime is using every opportunity to throw his opponents off balance. No event or crisis is too small for him to exploit. In recent speeches he has said, for example, that the fight against his once close ally Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher whom he blames for unleashing corruption investigations against him, his ministers and family, will be expanded from the presidency once he has assumed the office. He clearly is setting the stage to usurp powers that are not within the domain of the presidency.
In short, Turkey is facing the prospect of being transformed from a one-party and one-man state to simply a one-man state under an Erdogan presidency.