Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the most formidable vote-winner and election conjurer Turkey has ever seen. He founded his own party, led it to three absolute parliamentary majorities as prime minister, then last year performed a Putinesque sidestep to become the country’s first directly elected president with more than half of the popular vote. But on Monday Erdoğan stared defeat in the face. He had forsaken his famously intuitive feel for the popular mood, miscalculated in his highly aggressive election campaign and paid the price. Even if his Justice and Development party (AKP) retained the biggest parliamentary presence with 41% of the vote, many of his longstanding supporters deserted him, concluding that he was out of touch with their lives and the mood of the country.
In a meeting room above an upmarket restaurant in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, some 200 people listen as a young lawyer explains what to watch for when votes are counted in Sunday’s pivotal parliamentary election. Tens of thousands of volunteers have signed up to monitor the vote, set to be the closest in more than a decade, in what organisers say is a response an erosion in the rule of law. Oy Ve Otesi (“Vote and Beyond”), was set up the aftermath of anti-government demonstrations two years ago. In last year’s presidential election, it was able to monitor six cities. This time it is targeting 70,000 volunteers in 162 towns.
There is little doubt that Prime Minister Recep Erdogan will win the upcoming presidential elections. His lead in the most recent public opinions polls is at least in double digits. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu was fielded as a joint candidate for the two largest opposition parties, centre-left People’s Republican Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The third candidate is Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Kurdish nationalist People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Despite the fact that this is the first election in which the president will be elected by popular vote, following a constitutional amendment in 2007,enthusiasm for it is running fairly low. This election offers the Turkish voter the choice of two different models of presidency, where one would imply a de facto change in the system of governance. The election of either Ihsanoglu or Demirtas would maintain the fairly symbolic presidency in a parliamentary system. By contrast, Erdogan’s election will turn it into a semi-presidential one. In recent remarks, Erdogan clearly expressed his preference for an active presidency: “A president elected by the people cannot be like the previous ones. As the head of the executive, the president uses all his constitutional powers. If I am elected president, I will also use all of them. I won’t be a president of protocol.” Erdogan certainly has some room to do that within the current constitutional provisions that determine the powers of the presidency. The concern, however, is that Erdogan is adamant about politicising the role of the president; as he himself said: he “won’t be an impartial president”. What is at stake?