On August 10, the citizens of Turkey will vote for their country’s president for the first time in history. While previously it was parliament that voted for the head of state, the system now in place is a two-round popular election. The election has changed Turkey even before it has taken place. There are three contenders in the race. The candidate of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been prime minister for 11 years. His leadership style has antagonised those it didn’t captivate. Besides reigning over government accomplishments in areas like health care and transportation infrastructure, he has tackled entrenched challenges such as military tutelage and the Kurdish problem. But his actions and rhetoric have polarised society and his intolerance of dissent has created a lot of bad blood. Under Erdogan’s leadership checks on executive power one by one ebbed away. Erdogan frames his presidency as the necessary step to bring the AKP’s New Turkey vision to fruition. Every time Turkish citizens have gone to the ballot box since November 2002, the AKP has been victorious. Thus Erdogan enters the race riding a wave of invincibility, propelled by a narrative of a predestined victory, not only as the will of the nation, but also of God.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former Secretary-General of the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is the consensus candidate of the two leading opposition parties and a number of other minor parties.
Given the expectation that Erdogan, if elected president, will continue to micromanage through the AKP majority in the parliament and his cadres in state institutions, Ihsanoglu’s campaign has primarily advocated the need to preserve the constitutional role of the president – supervising checks and balances without steering domestic politics. His soft-spoken persona and emphasis on the rule of law offers assurance that he can contain the erosion of the separation of powers. But for voters accustomed to fiery speeches and aggressive politics, his rhetoric is unsensational.
Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has been a leading name in the Kurdish movement. His campaign has reached out to a broader constituency than just Kurds, appealing to typically pro-labour and left-leaning groups, as well as other excluded identities. While he has struck a chord with diverse constituencies interested in individual and cultural freedoms, democratisation, and social justice, there is a natural limit to the votes he can garner. He does not appeal to the conservative nationalistic majority of the country which sees Demirtas as a PKK associate.