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?
Erdogan has been eyeing the presidency for a long time, especially after he passed up an opportunity to run back in 2007. An Erdogan win is likely to solidify his power over the entire executive branch. The critical question here is how Erdogan’s departure will affect the leadership of the AKP. In all likelihood, Erdogan has a keen interest in maintaining control of the party when he moves to Cankaya, the presidential residence in Ankara. After all, this is his party. By delegating power to a party confidant, Erdogan would enjoy greater policy autonomy with limited checks on his power.
Recent Turkish history provides us with a very similar example from the late 1980s. When Turgut Ozal left the Motherland Party (ANAP) in 1989 to become the first civilian president of Turkey, he was intent on maintaining full control over his party. Yildirim Akbulut became the “yes-man” for Ozal as the leader of the party and the prime minister. Erdogan will have to follow suit and have a trusted loyalist head the party, as the Turkish constitution proscribes political impartiality and bars any political affiliation for the president.
An alternative scenario would be a Putin-Medvedev-style swap between Erdogan and the outgoing president Abdullah Gul. The latter is a long-time friend of Erdogan’s and one of the founders of AKP, with sizable clout over the party base. A recent poll indicated that the party base favours Gul’s leadership of the party by an overwhelming majority, while Erdogan serves as president. Although a scenario involving Gul’s leadership of the party most likely provides the party with the best chances of survival in the post-Erdogan era, Erdogan would most likely have concerns over his control diminishing substantially.