Turkey Pulse

Hard choices for Erdogan as he mulls candidacy for president

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Article Summary
Turkey is heading to uncharted territory of first direct presidential elections.

You have to hand it to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is not one to mince his words whether he is hurling invective at his enemies or laying his future political intentions on the line.

He reportedly told deputies from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) last week, during a meeting convened at the party’s headquarters to discuss the upcoming presidential elections, that the future system of government in Turkey was, “de facto,” a presidential one where the president enjoys executive powers.

He is said to have based his argument on the fact that the president will be elected by the public for the first time. Previously presidents in Turkey were elected by parliament. On Aug. 10, a president is to be elected to a five-year term as the result of a constitutional amendment accepted in 2007.

Erdogan, whose remarks were widely quoted in the media, reportedly added that he would use his constitutional powers to the limit if elected president, even though he has not decided yet whether to run for the presidency or not.

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Erdogan’s remarks were said to have been met with surprise by some AKP deputies in part because the 2007 amendment to the constitution did not alter the existing powers of the president, only the way he or she is elected.

Aware that there would be questions as to what Erdogan based his contention about a “de facto presidential system” on, Nurettin Canikli, the deputy head of the AKP’s parliamentary group reportedly stepped in to clarify the matter for AKP deputies. Addressing them immediately after Erdogan, Canikli maintained that the existing 1982 constitution would permit a popularly elected president to exercise executive powers. 

That constitution was drawn up under the military junta led by Kenan Evren, the chief of the general staff who toppled the democratically elected government of the day in 1980 and later became president. Despite his advanced years, Evren is currently facing legal proceedings over the coup he headed.

Many articles of the 1982 constitution remain in force today and continue to be criticized as undemocratic, despite amendments introduced under the AKP after it came to power in 2002, and by the coalition government that was in power before that.

Pointing out that the 1982 constitution gave Evren wide-ranging authority to use as president, Canikli reportedly said this authority could also be used by a president elected by the people. The risk in saying this at a time when Erdogan is already being accused of being authoritarian apparently did not bother Canikli.

Not surprisingly, the opposition was quick to react to Erdogan's and Canikli’s reported remarks, which have not been officially denied. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), was curt when responding to a question by reporters on the topic, merely saying, “We do not need a new Kenan Evren.”

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), for his part said Erdogan was dreaming of becoming president and added, “He is already keen on using illegal authority should he become president.”

Erdogan’s remarks were generally taken as a further indication that he wants to become a strong president. His declaration of war on the Constitutional Court, as Cengiz Candar explains in his Apr. 16 post for Al-Monitor, for overturning government legislation that limits the authority the judiciary is being pointed to as a clear sign that he wants to be a president unencumbered by any checks or balances.

It is of course still an open question as to whether Erdogan will run for president, even though all signs indicate this is where his heart lies. Twenty of the 24 deputies who delivered an address during last week’s AKP meeting, convened to discuss this matter, are said to have insisted that Erdogan be a candidate in August.

An unofficial sounding out of AKP deputies present during the meeting is said to have also revealed a majority in favor of Erdogan’s becoming president.

Those who opposed this, on the other hand, reportedly did so not out of any opposition to Erdogan, but because they are concerned about the fate of the AKP should Erdogan, as its charismatic leader, leave the helm.

Aware of these concerns, Erdogan reportedly told his deputies during last week’s meeting that the future of the party would not be in danger should someone else take its leadership.

“The party is an institutional structure. To say it will be finished if this person goes, or that person comes is wrong. What is important here is not this or that individual but the institution. There will be no flood with me or without me,” Erdogan reportedly said, throwing in for good measure that he has not decided yet about his candidacy for president.

The general formula bandied around AKP circles to date has been that President Abdullah Gul, who is a co-founder of the AKP, would take over the party leadership after Erdogan in order to maintain its cohesion and lead it to success in the 2015 general elections. Gul, however, threw a wrench into the works as far as this expectation is concerned when he suggested on April 18 that he has no political plans for the future.

“I see a lot of debate and speculation. I have served the state at every level with great honor, and there can be no greater source of pride than this. I would like to share with you here that under conditions that are prevailing today I have no political plans concerning the future,” Gul said in response to questions from reporters during a visit to Kutahya in western Turkey.

If Gul’s remarks mean that he will withdraw from active politics after his term as president ends, this will be a disappointment to different quarters for fundamentally different reasons.

First, there are those within the AKP who want to see Erdogan as president and believe Gul must head the AKP to keep it together. Then there are those in the AKP who want to see Gul re-elected as president to keep Erdogan at the head of the party.

Finally, there are those outside the AKP who either want Gul to run in order to spoil Erdogan’s presidential ambitions, or who want Gul to become prime minister in order to check Erdogan should he start exceeding his powers as president.

There is speculation that Gul arrived at a decision not to run for president or become prime minister in order not to obstruct Erdogan’s presidential path and also not to end up in a position of having to check Erdogan’s once he becomes president, now that Erdogan has indicated his intention to be a strong president.

Cemil Cicek, who is the speaker of parliament and a prominent AKP figure, pointed recently to the clash of authority that will emerge in the event that Turkey has an elected president with executive ambitions, and an elected prime minister who is constitutionally vested with executive powers.

Turning Erdogan’s “de facto” presidential system into a “de jure” one in order to overcome the kinds of difficulties that Cicek is warning about will, however, require a change to the constitution. But the AKP cannot do this on its own without support from other parties in parliament, and that is a highly unlikely prospect given the tense political atmosphere in Turkey.

This, however, is not the only difficulty facing Erdogan should he make a bid for the presidency. The general assumption based on the AKP’s recent success in the municipal elections is that Erdogan will win. But presidential elections based on the popular vote remain uncharted territory for Turkey.

If the opposition can get together to produce a credible and popular candidate, this could upset Erdogan’s plan to become “the president of the people,” as he puts it, whose power is based on a strong public mandate. Otherwise it will be difficult for him to allay heated arguments about his legitimacy as he uses the executive powers he is promising to use if elected president.

A credible opponent could eat away at his voter base and weaken his position even if he ends up winning the presidency in a second round of voting. There are also those, of course, who argue that Erdogan may not win the elections, given his abrasive manners, which many people do not want to see in a head of state.

Those who argue this also point to the fact that the majority did not vote for the AKP in the municipal elections on March 30, even if it came out with nearly 45% of the vote. AKP circles, of course, argue that that vote will translate into a 60% vote for Erdogan in August. But this is not certain.

Erdogan clearly has a lot on his mind as the day nears when he will have to take the risk and decide for sure whether he will run for president or not.

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Found in: turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, presidential elections, kemal kilicdaroglu, elections, devlet bahceli, abdullah gul, akp

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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