<a href="http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/middle-east-focus">Middle East In Focus</a>
Turkish voters went to the ballot box on Sunday to vote in the country’s presidential elections. This was the first time ever that a direct vote was held for the election of the Turkish president, signaling the possible beginning of a new political system in Turkey. There is a general consensus that Mr. Recep Erdogan, the country’s current Prime Minister and winner of Sunday’s vote, will invigorate the office of the President and reclaim some of the dormant powers given to the Turkish president in the 1981 constitution, which have never been used. The result is expected to be a more muscular presidency, like that of the French system. Less clear, however, is what this will mean for Turkey’s democracy and the country’s role in the region.
Few doubted the final outcome of the Sunday’s vote, but that did not stop some from criticizing the process, including Mr. Erdogan’s role in what some viewed as a divisive presidential campaign. In an op-ed for the Today’s Zaman (one of the dailies that has, at times, been critical of the Prime Minister), Ali Aslan Kilic points out a number of areas where the electoral process fell short: “Experts say that for more democratic elections there should be less restrictions on the procedures concerning candidate nomination. Many say that there should be a lower threshold than the current 10 percent of the vote needed for representation in Parliament to be able to nominate a candidate. This would allow political parties that have been left outside Parliament, but nevertheless have their own political traditions, to nominate candidates....The campaign period officially started on July 12, leaving only 26 days for the candidates to reach out to voters until the campaign deadline of Aug. 8, which many experts say is not adequate.”
Others, like Emre Uslu, have criticized Mr. Erdogan for the manner in which he has conducted his campaign, pointing out that the Prime Minister’s divisive language and name calling served to further polarize an already divided electorate: “In order to win, Erdogan has destroyed every institution that holds society together....In order to win, Erdogan even denied his own identity and claimed to be a Turk. However, just ten years ago he himself revealed that he is a descendent of Georgian families. Moreover, he insulted Armenians and espoused the idea the being Armenian is shameful. He has not only destroyed the ties between people, he has also destroyed the judicial system. In order to prove his claims, he changed the judicial system, appointed like-minded judges and found like-minded prosecutors to persecute his opponents....Erdogan's bullying campaign was not only limited to domestic actors. He has not hesitated to target foreign figures and countries in ploys to get more votes.”
Even if Mr. Erdogan’s victory was not as convincing as many predicted, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that what we are witnessing now in Turkey is the passing of the old Kemalist regime and its replacement with a new one, with Mr. Erdogan at the center of it. Nothing illustrates this better than a look at the list of contenders for the post of the president, which as the Daily Sabah points out contained “no (original) Kemalist candidates running for the presidency of the Turkish Republic. This is a fundamental change in Turkish democracy and an indirect admission by secular and Kemalist parties: There are no Kemalist figures who can run for the presidency because they have no chance at defeating the conservative candidate Erdogan. The notion that Kemalism is no longer preferred even by the so-called Kemalist parties who represent the state entrenched ideology, is a watershed in the history of Turkish democracy.”
In the absence of an overriding ideology holding the Turkish state and society together, Mr. Erdogan has quite ambitiously begun turning his sights on his own legacy and vision for the future. Daily Star’s Fulya Ozerkan characterizes Erdogan as “A ‘big master’ from Turkey with his eye on history…. There is no doubt that Erdogan has his eye on history and wants to be ranked with Turkey’s post-Ottoman founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as one of the great transformative figures in its modern history....His aim is to transform Turkey into both a modern European state and an Islamic power....A strongman image, economic growth and pride in his Muslim identity have bought him the unstinting support of huge swaths of the country, particularly in many of the rural and poorer areas. Yet to his foes, Erdogan is a throwback to the autocratic excesses of the Ottoman empire who risks destroying Ataturk’s secular legacy and the country’s dream of one day joining the EU.”
Likewise, Daily Sabah’s Kiliç Bugra Kanat believes the moment is ripe for a new constitution aimed at addressing Turkey’s deep structural problems: “There are many issues that Erdogan, as president and a new prime minister needs to address after the elections. In the aftermath of the presidential election, regardless of the timing of the next general election, Erdogan and his team have to initiate delayed political reforms that many in Turkey have been waiting for. The top of this list includes drafting a new, more democratic, open and pluralistic constitution that responds to the demands and concerns of the citizens. The individual reform packages have been necessary, but insufficient to resolve the deep structural problems in the Turkish political system.”
Ibrahim Kalin, another Turkish political analyst and support of Prime Minister Erdogan, agrees, and expresses the view that given the new mandate as the president of the republic, Mr. Erdogan needs to push forward with the needed reforms: “Erdogan's well-deserved victory once again confirms his leadership and popularity. But this win has implications beyond Erdogan's personal success story....Now as president, Erdogan is set to continue with the policies of economic development, social mobility and political empowerment, supported by an active foreign policy....As Turkey's first president elected by direct popular vote, Erdogan will continue to challenge the domestic and regional status quo, and further establish Turkey as a political and economic powerhouse. Given the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the uncertainties in the global system, Turkey's political stability and economic growth should be protected and deepened. The new era under President Erdogan promises to do that.”
But what exactly can Erdogan do? Today’s Zaman staff writers believe the president-elect will make full use of the powers of the presidency as outlined in the constitution, even though many of those powers have never been used before: “Erdogan vows to transform the presidency into a powerful position — something his detractors point to as proof he is bent on a power grab. He has said he will activate the post's rarely used dormant powers — a legacy of the 1980 coup — including the ability to call Parliament and summon and preside over Cabinet meetings....The current Constitution, written under military rule after a 1980 coup, would enable Erdogan to chair Cabinet meetings and appoint the prime minister and members of top judicial bodies, including the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK).”
Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin also believes Mr. Erdogan’s election as the country’s next president signifies the beginning of a new ear dominated by the prime minister’s personality: “Erdogan’s time in Turkey has started, which he likes to call the ‘New Turkey.’ That will have consequences in reshaping the Turkish political system, for example, a shift in the regime from a parliamentary to a strong presidential model. And Erdogan’s time will have reflections in Turkish foreign policy at a time when the region Turkey is a part of is burning in flames. Erdogan, after Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hassan Rouhani of Iran, will endorse his role in regional geopolitics and in Europe, following in the footsteps of Angela Merkel of Germany, a leader who renewed her public support in a clear way. Erdogan may start to build his new Turkey from today on, without the need to wait for the handover ceremony on Aug. 27, since he thinks the winner should take all with such popular support.”
Pointing out that a new era in Turkish politics, and quite possible Turkish history has begun, does not mean that everyone is excited or anxious for it. For example, in an op-ed for the Hurriyet Daily News, Mustafa Akyol has serious reservations about what he sees as the likely politicization of the presidency: “Despite the fact the Turkish Constitution defines the presidency as a ‘non-partisan’ seat, it seems obvious that Erdogan will keep ruling his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from behind-the-scenes. It is commonly expected that Erdogan will appoint a loyal member as prime minister and maintain his domination over the government, the party organization, Parliament and pro-Erdogan media....signs indicate that there is a tense era ahead, unless Erdogan takes a miraculous turn opting for reconciliation instead of demonization, and power-sharing instead of hegemony. And how long may that tense era last? A decade at least (5+5 years), according to Erdogan’s game plan.”
Furthermore, according to Mr. Akyol, the centralization of power in Mr. Erdogan’s hands has been so complete that even his erstwhile ally, President Abdullah Gül has been sidestepped in favor of more conservative political leaders: "What this also means is Erdogan does not wish to leave any chance for Abdullah Gül, the man who founded the AKP with him some 13 years ago, in the political scene. Gül’s presidency is ending with this election and there is a hope among moderates within the AKP, and even some liberals, that he can come back to the party and restore it on the more reconciliatory and pro-EU lines the AKP followed in its initial years. But Erdogan, apparently, has been taking all measures possible to block this scenario.”
“What kind of Turkey do we want?” asks Yusu Kanli, hinting that Mr. Erdogan continued leadership does not bode well for the country: “The tone of the election campaign itself demonstrated what’s in the stock for the nation....The atmosphere of fear that was established in the country over the past decade will be consolidated and soon the entire country would start celebrating the greatness of having an absolute power who would be able to decide, legislate and execute everything singlehandedly, and if needed he would judge and deliver the verdict singlehandedly as well....Sunday’s vote definitely was more than just a vote for Turkey… Turks went to the polls to cast their votes on an unasked question: What kind of a future do you want for Turkey?”
For the time being however, the majority of the Turkish voters appear to be siding with Mr. Erdogan’s vision of a ‘new’ Turkey, rather than with that of his opponents. Whether that will continue to be the case, remains to be seen.
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