Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for the last 11 years and an increasingly authoritarian and polarising figure, will, as expected, run in the country’s first direct election for the presidency on 10 August. No one expects him to lose, least of all Erdogan himself. His Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won the last six general and local elections. He faces a term limit as prime minister next year. Erdogan will run against Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, who is the joint candidate of the two biggest opposition parties, the centre-left Republican Peoples Party (CHP), established by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and the right-wing National Action Party (MHP), and Selahattin Demirtas, a pro-Kurdish politician. By uniting under one candidate, the CHP and the MHP, which represent the secularist elite, hope to narrow the distance with the AKP.
The current job of president (elected by parliament) is a largely ceremonial post; Erdogan would like French-style presidential powers but he does not have the required two-thirds support in parliament to change the constitution and push through reforms. A general election is due next year. The AKP has mooted the idea of changing the electoral law based on narrower constituencies, which would give the party more seats, and lowering the threshold of 10% of the vote, which would benefit pro-Kurdish parties.
Erdogan is courting the country’s Kurds, who constitute up to 20% of Turkey’s population. The government stepped up its efforts last month to end the decades-long conflict with Kurds, which has claimed some 40,000 lives, by sending to parliament legislation giving legal protection to officials negotiating with the outlawed PKK terrorist group and authorising ‘necessary measures for the members of the organization who give up arms to come home and adapt to and participate in social life’.
In an historic shift also last month –which broke a taboo– the AKP signalled its support for an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq. This move would be for strategic reasons –as a buffer against the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIS)– and would go down well with Turkey’s own Kurdish community. Turkey has a more than 300km long border with Iraq and some 900km with Syria, where ISIS also controls some territory. An independent state is now regarded as a foregone conclusion and one that Ankara would have no option but to accept.