BACKGROUND: Erdoğan first began preparing to introduce a presidential system after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a third successive general election in June 2011, securing 49.8 per cent of the popular vote, up from 46.7 per cent in the previous election in July 2007. Initially, Erdoğan was confident that he could continue to extend his support base to 55 per cent or even 60 per cent – and then claim he had a mandate to concentrate executive power in the presidency without any checks or balances.
However, as he grew in confidence, the instincts and prejudices that Erdoğan had managed to suppress during his early years in office began to resurface. In his victory speeches after the elections of July 2007 and June 2011, Erdoğan promised to embrace all sections of Turkish society and to serve those who had voted for the opposition as much as those who had supported the AKP. The reality was very different. Not only did Erdoğan become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of any expression of dissent but he started to try to reshape what has always been a highly diverse society in line with his own conservative Sunni Muslim beliefs.
In late May 2013, growing resentment at Erdoğan’s ever more intrusive attempts at social homogenization erupted in what have come to be known as the Gezi Park Protests. During the course of summer 2013, an estimated three million people – mostly members of Turkey’s previously largely apolitical middle class youth – took to the streets in the country’s first ever spontaneous grassroots uprising. Erdoğan responded with a brutal police crackdown that left eight protestors dead and thousands injured.
In an attempt to consolidate his support base, Erdoğan accused the protestors of being agents of foreign conspirators – including Jewish financiers, the United States, the EU and even the German airline Lufthansa – desperately trying to halt Turkey’s otherwise inevitable rise to greatness under his leadership. He consciously inculcated a sense of siege amongst his supporters, actively turning one section of Turkish society against another. Erdoğan now portrays himself and the AKP as representing “the national will” – with the clear implication that other parties and their supporters do not.
Not only did Erdoğan’s response to the Gezi Park Protests exacerbate the fissures in what was already a dangerously divided society, but he effectively made the retention of the unquestioning loyalty of his supporters dependent on his ability to perpetuate their sense of being under siege from outside and inside the country. However, by seeking to deepen rather than broaden his support base, Erdoğan has effectively made it impossible for him to secure the social consensus that he would need to introduce a presidential system.
Nevertheless, in terms of his ability to connect with urban and rural low income groups that form the AKP’s grassroots, Erdoğan remains the most effective and most charismatic politician in modern Turkish history. In the run-up to the local elections of March 30, 2014, Erdoğan was able to perpetuate the siege mentality amongst his supporters by portraying a barrage of accusations of corruption and malpractice – the majority of them apparently well-founded -- by his erstwhile allies in the Gülen Movement as part of another international conspiracy. Although its vote declined when compared with the general election of June 2011, the AKP nevertheless won 43.1 per cent in the elections for local councils, rising to 45.5 per cent in greater municipal areas.
The campaign for the presidential election of August 10 was marred by numerous abuses of power – such as Erdoğan’s use of the prime ministerial plane and helicopters for campaign rallies and highly partial coverage by the state-owned broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). But there is also little doubt that Erdoğan’s prospects were considerably boosted by the nature of the other two candidates.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Turkish ultranationalist National Action Party (MHP) joined eleven minor parties in putting forward a joint candidate. In an indication of how nearly 12 years of AKP rule has changed the Turkish political landscape, the CHP and MHP nominated Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, an avuncular 70 year-old Islamic scholar but political neophyte, in an apparent attempt to erode Erdoğan’s support amongst the Sunni masses. But İhsanoğlu received little active support from the CHP and MHP party networks and his campaign often appeared ramshackle and amateurish – particularly when compared with the slick professionalism of the AKP’s well-practiced campaigning machine.
The third candidate was the 41 year-old Selahattin Demirtaş, who has spent all of his political career in the Kurdish nationalist movement. During the course of the campaign, Demirtaş probably did more to enhance his national political profile than either of the other two candidates. But, although he secured the backing of Turkey’s small but highly vocal liberal intelligentsia, Demirtaş was always too marginal to pose a threat to Erdoğan.
IMPLICATIONS: At first sight, the results of August 10 election would appear to suggest that Erdoğan’s popularity has risen and that he is well-placed to push ahead with his plans to introduce a presidential system. But, on closer inspection, the figures tell a different story.
According to the provisional results, Erdoğan finished first with 51.8 per cent, followed by İhsanoğlu with 38.4 per cent and Demirtaş with 9.8 per cent. But, by Turkish standards, the turnout was extremely low at just 74.l per cent. In recent elections, turnout has usually averaged around 85 per cent. In the March 2014 local elections it was 89.5 per cent.
In terms of votes, on August 10, Erdoğan won a total of 21.0 million. This compares with the 21.3 million who voted for the AKP in the 2011 general election, when the total electorate was much smaller at 50.2 million as against 55.7 million in August 2014. In the local elections of March 2014, the AKP won 20.5 million votes.
İhssanoğlu received 15.6 million votes on August 10. The political parties who had nominated him received a total of 17.4 million votes in the 2011 general election, rising to 20.5 million in the local elections of March 2014.
The announcement of İhsanoğlu’s candidacy failed to generate much enthusiasm amongst MHP supporters and was greeted with widespread dismay amongst CHP voters, particularly the Alevis and urban middle-classes who make up a large proportion of the party’s support base. Many of the latter were in their summer houses on August 10 and made no secret of their reluctance to return to the cities to vote – particularly after opinion polls published in early August suggested that Erdoğan would win 55-57 per cent of the vote, making his victory a seemingly foregone conclusion. In contrast, not only were diehard AKP considerably more motivated by Erdoğan’s candidacy but – with the exception of some migrant agricultural workers – the vast majority did not have to move in order to be able to vote.
From this perspective, the 51.8 per cent won by Erdoğan on August 10 appears to be more a product of the relatively low turnout than a real change in the level of his popular support. Indeed, one of the most worrying aspects of the emotions that Erdoğan evokes is its intensity. Feelings are deeply entrenched. He tends to be loathed or adored. There is rarely anything in between and little likelihood of any movement from one extreme to the other. Yet it is movement that Erdoğan needs. He has to broaden his – and, even more critically, the AKP’s – support base if he is going to change the constitution and introduce a presidential system.
In the 2011 general election, the AKP won 327 of the 550 seats in parliament. Under Turkish law, any attempt to change the constitution through parliament requires the support of 367 deputies. If it has the support of 330 deputies, the government can ask the president to put the constitutional changes to a referendum. The next general election is due to be held by June 2015 at the latest. In order to secure a large enough parliamentary majority even to put constitutional changes to a referendum, the AKP is likely to have to better the 49.8 per cent it won in the 2011 general election.
Under Turkish law, the president cannot be a member of a political party. Erdoğan will have to resign from the AKP before he is sworn in as president on August 28. However, he has already made it clear that he will try to introduce a de facto presidential system – by using his informal authority in the AKP to appoint a puppet prime minister – until the constitution can be changed. Although Erdoğan has yet to name his successor, the current front-runner is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
CONCLUSIONS: There is already considerable concern in the AKP that, without Erdoğan as leader, the party will lose electoral momentum. Even if he ignores the constitutional insistence on political impartiality and explicitly endorses the AKP in the run-up to the next general election, Erdoğan will be unable to campaign on the party’s behalf, crisscrossing the country to address mass rallies as he has done for the last decade. A further challenge is that, in a country which still prizes political machismo, any successor as prime minister who is pliant enough to implement every order he receives from Erdoğan as president will find it almost impossible to convince the electorate that he is a strong leader in his own right.
Many in the AKP have called for Abdullah Gül to take over as party leader and prime minister after he steps down as president on August 28. But Gül would first have to rejoin the AKP and become a member of parliament. More ominously for Erdoğan, Gül has already made it clear that he is opposed to a presidential system and, if he becomes prime minister, will expect to be able to rule the country without any interfence from Erdoğan in the presidential palace.
On August 11, Gül issued a statement indicating that they he would rejoin the AKP after stepping down as president on August 28. Gül’s aides briefed journalists that, as a former president, Gül would of course expect to be AKP leader. Erdoğan responded by interrupting a meeting of the AKP National Executive to issue a statement that the party would hold an extraordinary congress to elect a new leader on August 27, one day before Gül can rejoin the AKP.
The announcement was clearly an attempt by Erdoğan to block any potential threat to his continued domination of the AKP. But it has brought his long-running – and previously largely private – rivalry with Gül out into the open. Despite his victory on August 10, there were already signs that Erdoğan’s personal popularity had peaked. A public power struggle with Gül would not only damage the AKP in the run-up to the next general election but would deal yet another blow to Erdoğan’s already seemingly forlorn hopes of introducing a presidential system.