ISTANBUL: With less than a week to go before Turkey votes for its first directly elected president, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks to be a shoo-in for the role he hopes will transform the country’s political system. But the strongman head of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may face a bigger challenge in the months following his election as he tries to maneuver a transition to an executive presidency and extend his domination over Turkish politics.
Analysts say Erdogan will need to carefully manage his Cabinet in the interim period ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015 to prevent a power struggle within the AKP that could destabilize the country or even lead to a constitutional crisis.
“The big question is whether his presidency will mean instability in domestic policy,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank, the Center for Economic and Foreign policy studies (EDAM) and visiting scholar at Carnegie Brussels.
“It’s still not clear how the transition to an executive presidency will be managed ... this will determine the future of Turkish politics.”
As the dominant force during the AKP’s 11-year reign, Erdogan, who is barred from running for the premiership for a fourth term, is now seeking to trade up to a presidency with bolstered powers. Under Turkey’s current parliamentary system, the president has a largely ceremonial role, and Erdogan has made clear his plans to change the constitution to a U.S.-style presidential system with executive powers.
To secure the required mandate to change the constitution, Erdogan will need the full backing of the parliament and a majority win for the AKP in the 2015 parliamentary elections to push through the constitutional amendments.
Erdogan already tried to change the 1982 constitution that AKP officials have argued is an unwanted relic of military rule but has failed to get the two-thirds majority required in parliament to put the amendments to a referendum.
While still polling well ahead of his two rival candidates, and expected to win the presidency in the first round of the vote on Aug. 10, Erdogan has nonetheless faced a series of challenges in the last year that have dented his popularity among the 50-million-strong electorate, possibly leading to lower voter participation this round.
Mass popular protests which were brutally suppressed by police forces in 2013 have cemented a perception of Erdogan as an increasingly authoritarian leader. A widening corruption scandal and series of leaked phone calls and videos have ensnared his inner circle and even members of his own family.
A bitter and highly publicized fall-out with U.S.-based imam Fethullah Gulen has become an increasing obsession for Erdogan, who has vowed to purge the military and state institutions of what he calls a “parallel state” aligned with his former ally. Meanwhile a series of controversial foreign policy decisions, most notably on Syria, and consistently belligerent rhetoric have put Erdogan offside with allied world leaders.
There are also signs of rancor within his own ranks. Last week, AKP co-founder and former deputy Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat resigned from the party, claiming it had “deviated” from its original democratic aims.
The question of who is appointed as premier in the interim Cabinet will prove critical to Erdogan’s executive presidential drive, observers say.
According to the constitution, once a president is elected, he must resign from the party. A grand party congress, scheduled about 45 days after the vote, then needs to elect the new party leader. But in a highly unusual first in the country’s history, Erdogan’s position as premier may mean that he may not withdraw from the executive post of prime minister once he is elected on Aug. 10, allowing him to retain the premiership, while also acting as president-elect.
Current President Abdullah Gul’s term will end on Aug. 28 and he is expected to hand over the presidency to Erdogan on the same day. On Aug. 29, the new president can then appoint a new prime minister.
“He will need to make sure he decides who will succeed him and not the party,” said Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Gul, as a co-founder of the party with strong leadership credentials, could unite the AKP to achieve parliamentary victory, but may not be willing to be the compliant premier Erdogan seeks.
“He will try to block Gul’s election to the party leadership,” Ozel said. Erdogan will be seeking to appoint a subservient prime minister, “someone who will carry on his agenda, but also a strong enough leader that can get the party elected with a large majority.”
That, according to Ulgen, is a “tall order” and one that has resounding consequences for domestic stability in Turkey. “The dilemma is actually that one because the appointed prime minister may not be one that allows AKP to win at the polls in 2015.”
Using divisive tactics to alienate any opposition polarizes the country, “making it less governable and less ready to reach consensus on critical issues,” he said.
Ozel said Erdogan’s sledgehammer tactics mean he is likely to get his way, forcefully overcoming whatever resistance there might be within the party. “They fear his wrath,” he added. “He incessantly maligns anyone who gets in his way. You cross him and you get hit.”
“He has alienated every segment of the population that doesn’t vote for him. People have said that will lead to instability in the past, but nothing has changed.”