President Erdogan: Leading from Cankaya

  • photo courtesy of Αντώνης Σαμαράς Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας https://www.flickr.com/photos/primeministergr/4732015705
    Aug 27, 2014

    On August 10, in the first ever direct presidential elections mandated by the constitutional change brought about by a referendum in October 2007, Turkish voters chose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), as their 12th president to replace outgoing president Abdullah Gul at Cankaya Palace on August 28.

    In accordance with another provision of the constitutional change, Erdogan's presidential term will be for five years instead of seven. As he is now allowed to run again, Erdogan, who has been prime minister since March 2003, can continue in office with a second five-year presidential term until 2024; beyond the symbolically important centenary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 2023. Moreover, as he made very clear throughout the election campaign as well as since his victory, Erdogan fully intends to use the unique new mandate given to him by the direct election to continue centralizing authority as he governs Turkey through what would be a de facto quasi-presidential arrangement within the current parliamentary system.

    A New Mandate

    Running as the candidate of the AKP, which has been in government since November 2002, Erdogan obtained 51.79 percent of the vote in defeating Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the joint candidate of the opposition National Action Party (MHP) and the Republican People's Party (CHP) who received 38.44 percent of the vote and Selahattin Demirtas of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who finished with 9.76 percent. Of the 55,692,841 eligible voters 41,283,627 actually voted and of these 40,545,911 were deemed to be valid. Erdogan received 21,000,143 compared to Ihsanoglu's 15,587,720 and Demirtas's 3,958,048. Although his vote fell below expectations publicly articulated by Erdogan and his AKP colleagues as well as most opinion polls, he improved on the 49.9 percent his party received in the June 2011 parliamentary elections and the 45.5 percent in the March 2014 metropolitan municipal elections. While it is noteworthy that voter turnout was approximately 74.13 percent – well below the 89.1 percent in the March 2014 local elections – it is unlikely that the result would have been different with a higher turnout.

    Erdogan's victory, which sustained his unbroken run of success at the polls since the Istanbul mayoral election of 1994, once again demonstrated the strength and durability of his winning formula for electoral success. A charismatic natural politician and effective public speaker, Erdogan has been tirelessly combining his ability to connect with voters through hands-on management of the superb and well-funded party organization and domination of media coverage to consistently tap into the huge voting reservoir in the conservative majority which has dominated Turkish politics since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1950. While ensuring control of the Turkish political scene through his party during the past twelve years, Erdogan has also been steadily expanding his personal appeal beyond that of the AKP itself, something he will rely on as he begins to govern the country from Cankaya.

    Although Erdogan was always a heavy favorite to win because of the advantages he enjoyed going into the race, there is little doubt that Ihsanoglu's weakness as a candidate eased his task. Erdogan was able to amplify and exploit his lack of political experience and connection with the average voter. Unable to respond effectively to Erdogan's typically robust campaign rhetoric which included raising questions in voters’ minds about his opponent's professional and national credentials as well as his external connections – he was born in Egypt and had not moved to Turkey until the age of 30 – Ihsanoglu also failed to organize a single election rally to compete with Erdogan's impressive mass rallies throughout the country. He was also denied effective organizational support from the CHP and MHP whose leaders had nominated him. With many MHP voters staying at home or voting for Erdogan and a smaller percentage of CHP voters – who regarded Ihsanoglu as 'a milder version of Erdogan' – also choosing not to vote or voting for Demirtas, he failed to even get close to the approximately 44 percent of the votes the two parties backing him had garnered in the March local elections. For his part, Demirtas was unable to leap over the 10 percent hurdle but nonetheless raised hopes that a Kurdish party might do so in the future and thus gain direct parliamentary representation while simultaneously underlining the important role of the Kurds in the overall political equation.
     
    Reshaping the AKP and the Government

    The first round victory left Erdogan in a uniquely strong position during the 18 days prior to taking office, as president-elect, prime minister and party chairman. Ignoring opposition calls for him to resign from his positions during the interregnum; he has used this time to direct the process through which his successor as leader of the AKP and prime minister would emerge. To begin with, by scheduling the extraordinary party congress to choose his successor for August 27, he effectively shut the door to Gul, a cofounder of the AKP who was generally regarded as the second strongest person in the party and as such the likeliest candidate until recently to replace Erdogan as party leader and prime minister. However, even before his election Erdogan had indicated that he did not want Gul to take over from him by expressing his preference for the same person to hold both positions going into the June 2015 parliamentary elections, thus excluding Gul who is not a member of parliament and therefore could not be prime minister. Erdogan also specified that another determining factor would be the AKP’s three-term limit which led to the elimination from consideration other leading AKP politicians, including Bulent Arinc and Ali Babacan.

    Erdogan's goal is to reshape and rejuvenate the party under his personal direction without the active participation of most of those who have been with him in the leadership of the AKP since its formation in August 2001. In other words, Erdogan is aiming at the construction of a ‘New AKP’ to govern ‘the New Turkey.’ He clearly believes that this could not be fully achieved if he was sharing power and authority with Gul and, to a lesser extent, with others in the original AKP team. Erdogan also seems to be confident that the mild public discomfort recently articulated by Gul – which is almost certainly shared to some degree or other by many of the older generation AKP leaders destined for marginalization – will not create serious problems for him down the road.
     
    By the time the AKP's Central Decision and Administration Board met on August 22 to nominate his successor, virtually everyone in the party had become aware of Erdogan's preference for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who did not come through the party ranks and is a member of the new generation of AKP politicians. Such differences of opinion that may have existed about the greater suitability of other possible candidates dissipated as the members of the board fell into line behind their leader's choice and Davutoglu's name was duly announced by Erdogan to AKP members immediately after the board gave its formal approval.

    In his speech in which he explained his decision, Erdogan made a point of noting that Davutoglu's “determined struggle against the parallel structure was an important factor" in his selection and expressed confidence that he would "continue the necessary struggle without wavering." Having stressed throughout the entire presidential campaign the need "to confront the continuing threat to the state posed by the parallel structure" after “its coup attempt in December 2013" – Erdogan's constant characterization of the corruption investigations directed at him as well as his family and close associates for which he has been blaming the Hizmet Movement headed by Fethullah Gulen – Erdogan clearly wanted to be sure that his successor would not ease up on this effort.

    Another important factor which undoubtedly swayed Erdogan in Davutoglu's favor was his wholehearted involvement, first as advisor between 2002 and 2009 and then as foreign minister, in the shaping and implementation of the AKP government's foreign policy. Parallel to its consolidation of domestic power over the past decade, the AKP has been assiduously developing an activist foreign policy emphasizing the expansion of Turkey's influence beyond its borders, especially in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, as part of its effort to construct the ‘New Turkey’ which would also be an important player in international relations. Although many questions have been raised about its overall success, there is little doubt about its strong and continuing appeal to AKP voters.

    Looking Ahead

    On August 27 Erdogan attended and made his final speech as prime minister and party leader at the extraordinary AKP Congress which convened to formally choose his successor. As the only candidate, Davutoglu received 1382 out of the 1388 votes cast to take over as AKP leader and will be formally asked to form the new government on August 28 after the presidential swearing in ceremony.

    While it remains to be seen how Davutoglu, who has hitherto focused exclusively on foreign policy, will deal with the wider party and governmental responsibilities – especially the economy because of its vital importance in maintaining AKP dominance – the new phase of Turkish politics has to be viewed as a continuation of the Erdogan era. On August 7, just before the presidential election, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci, a close associate of Erdogan, declared that "from now on there will not be a prime minister but someone who will just chair cabinet meetings." Echoing Erdogan's own declarations, Zeybekci said that as the first directly elected president, Erdogan would be "an active president and the head of the administration as well as of the state." He added that this would "open a new door to a presidential system."

    However, until such a system comes into being with a new constitution, a priority goal for Erdogan and Davutoglu as they look ahead to the 2015 elections, in which they hope the AKP will win a sufficient number of seats to be able to get parliamentary approval for a new constitution, Erdogan will undoubtedly use to the maximum the powers given to the president under Article 104 of the current 1982 constitution. As he proceeds down that uncharted path, he will be relying on his prime minister's willingness to refrain from exercising the powers given to him in a parliamentary system.

    Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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