BACKGROUND: Presidential elections have on several occasions been of critical importance in Turkish politics. The latest presidential election, in 2007, triggered a severe crisis, with the General staff, then perceived as all-mighty, interfering in the electoral process in order to block the election of the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although the Turkish political system is a parliamentary system, with the main power vested in the prime minister, the presidency is nonetheless far from being of only symbolic importance.
The constitution, which was drafted by the junta that held power in the 1980s, in fact bestows extended authority on the president; the president exerts significant power as he nominates judges to the constitutional court, appoints the members of the Board of Higher Education (YÖK) as well as the rectors of universities.
The generals who commissioned the current constitution intended the president to be, precisely, the guardian of the power of the state establishment, checking the influence of the popularly elected governments. Süleyman Demirel, who was president 1993 to 2000, fulfilled those expectations when he played a decisive role when the state establishment, led by the military, toppled the country’s first Islamist-led government. And so did his successor Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who used his power to check the AKP, vetoing several of the laws (and many of the appointments) passed by the AKP majority in parliament between 2002 and 2007.
The incumbent, Abdullah Gül, was elected the eleventh president of the republic on August 28, 2007, on the third round of voting in the parliament, receiving 339 of the votes cast. His term in office – seven years according to the law at the time – would expire in 2014, and he would not be able to stand for reelection. However, on October 5, 2007, an amendment to the constitution that changed the rules for presidential elections and of the presidential term in office was approved in a referendum by 68 percent of voters. According to what is now stipulated, the president is to be elected by popular vote for a period of five years, with a possibility of seeking reelection once having been introduced. Since then, uncertainty has reigned as to how long the incumbent president is going to remain in office. Would the old rules continue to apply to Gül, ending his term in 2014, and would they bar him from seeking reelection?
On January 19, 2012, the AKP majority in parliament passed a bill that retroactively rules that the old, rescinded law applies to those who were elected to the presidency before the current system was introduced on October 2007. Formally, that makes it impossible for surviving former presidents Kenan Evren, Süleyman Demirel and Ahmet Necdet Sezer as well to seek the presidency again, but in practice, the aim of the temporary clause is to ensure that Abdullah Gül is unable to stand for reelection in 2014.
In fact, Gül was not the preferred candidate of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan five years ago either; had Erdoğan gotten his way, then defense minister Vecdi Gönül would have become president. But Bülent Arınç, who was then the speaker of the parliament, weighed in against Erdoğan’s choice, demanding that the new president be selected from within the ruling trio of the AKP, that is, the prime minister, himself, and Gül. Five years later, Erdoğan is in a much stronger position, and it is unlikely that he would feel compelled to similarly defer to the demands of others in his party. Yet, Erdoğan nonetheless did find it necessary to take the precautionary measure of ensuring that he would not face a scenario in which Gül would seek reelection in 2014.
However, on March 21, 2012, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) took the case to the Constitutional Court; the main opposition party contests the constitutionality of the temporary clause that bars Abdullah Gül from seeking reelection. In its complaint, the CHP holds that the clause violates the principle of equality before the law, as it introduces a special provision directed toward a specific individual. In its appeal, the CHP defends that the president is elected for five years, with a possibility of seeking reelection once, and calls upon the court to uphold what the constitution states.
IMPLICATIONS: In fact, it is not at all unlikely that the Constitutional Court will rule accordingly. From a legal perspective, the matter seems to be pretty clear. Haşım Kılıç, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, recently stated that “we are not going to let the political power lay siege on the judiciary”, a statement that was widely interpreted as a possible harbinger of a ruling that will upset the political schedule of Prime Minister Erdoğan, who is assumed to be coveting the presidency, and who was assumed to be planning to ascend to it in 2014.
The Constitutional court is expected to pass its ruling in June, at the latest. If the court does declare that the law of presidential elections, with its temporary clause regarding the term of the incumbent president, is indeed unconstitutional, then that would mean that a presidential election would be held on August 28, 2012.
Of the seventeen members of the court, seven have been appointed by President Gül, five by his predecessor Sezer, one each by former presidents Demirel and Özal and two by the parliament. That means that the ruling of the court is likely to be considerably influenced by the deliberations of those members on the bench that can be assumed to be predisposed to be sympathetic toward the president. And although Gül has not made any pronouncements on the matter, it is nonetheless assumed in political circles in Ankara that he is unhappy with the provision that bars from him seeking reelection. Yet, it is nonetheless unlikely that Gül would seek reelection already in August 2012, even if the court were to pass a ruling that in theory opens up that possibility for him. The most likely scenario is instead that Erdoğan declares his candidacy, two years earlier than what he had – in all likelihood – planned. Otherwise, Erdoğan would have to postpone his ambitions until 2017.
The prospect of Erdoğan assuming the presidency at this stage is met with little enthusiasm within the AKP, as there is a fear that the party risks becoming rudderless in the absence of its charismatic leader. The rank and file in the AKP would prefer Erdoğan to stay on as prime minister; ultimately, however, it is the preference of the prime minister himself that will decide the outcome. Similarly, it is Erdoğan’s preferences that will determine the future leadership of the AKP and of the government. If Erdoğan makes an early exit to the presidency in August 2012, the prevailing view in the AKP group in parliament is that he should be succeeded as prime minister by the incumbent president; the assumption is that only Gül, who would bring to the task the additional authority that comes from having served as president, would be strong enough to keep the party together in Erdoğan’s absence.
However, to become prime minister, Gül needs to be elected to parliament. That could in theory be easily arranged, with the resignations of one or two AKP members of parliament paving the way for a by-election, but that would nonetheless be dependent on the consent of Erdoğan, who is full control of the party apparatus. And were he to decide to retain full control of the party after his elevation to the presidency – which is not improbable – he would more likely promote a less charismatic person than Gül as prime minister, such as one of the current cabinet ministers Binalı Yıldırım or Ali Babacan.
CONCLUSIONS: The appeal of the opposition CHP to the Constitutional Court for the repeal of the temporary clause in the law that regulates presidential elections – which was inserted in order to bar incumbent president Abdullah Gül from seeking reelection – has raised the possibility that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s political time-table may be altered, precipitating his early ascension to the presidency. In the event that the court rules that Gül’s term is five years, a Turkish president will be elected in a popular vote for the first time this year. In all likelihood, Erdoğan will fulfill his dream of becoming that historical person.
It is highly unlikely that Abdullah Gül would be able to mobilize any support within the AKP for challenging Erdoğan and seeking reelection on this occasion, and neither is there any opposition candidate that would be anywhere near a position of mounting a challenge to Erdoğan. What the opposition can hope, and what prompted the CHP to file its appeal to the Constitutional Court, is that an anticipated presidential election will cause dissensions to surface and become more pronounced within the AKP. In any event, the fears within the AKP that the party will become more vulnerable without Erdoğan at its helm may indeed prove well-founded.
M. Kemal Kaya is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".