Erdogan’s march to the presidency: Possible scenarios

By Al Jazeera Center for Studies

There is a strong likelihood that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister and head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), will run for the country’s presidency. Legally, Turkey must elect a new president before the end of August 2014; that is, before the end of the term of the incumbent president, Abdullah Gul. Following a constitutional amendment passed in 2010, the president will this year be, for the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, elected by the direct vote of the people, rather than by a majority of parliamentarians.

There is no obligation on Erdogan to run for the presidency; he can retain his position as prime minister until the next parliamentary elections in 2015, and encourage his party to amend its rules of procedure to allow members of parliament to stand for more than three terms, thus allowing him to continue as prime minister for a further four years after the 2015 elections. But Erdogan has, thus far, refused to amend the party’s rules of procedure. Also, a poll conducted mid-April showed that the majority of AKP members wanted to nominate him for the presidency. It is now widely expected that Erdogan will announce his intention to compete for the presidency later this month.

The move will spark numerous questions in the Turkish political arena. What will be the fate of Gul, who is also an AKP founding leader? Might a deal be negotiated for an exchange of roles between Erdogan and Gul, as was the case in Russia? Will Erdogan win the presidency in the first round, or he will be forced into a second round of voting where all opposition parties could rally behind a single candidate? What kind of president will Erdogan be if he wins the presidency, and what powers will he exercise?

Deal or no deal?

Following stormy local government elections on 30 March 2014, Turkey’s political agenda is now focused on the August presidential election. Clearly, everyone is waiting for Erdogan and Gul to meet and decide on the issue. Some observers who believe that Erdogan will run for president anticipate a deal to swop positions between Gul and Erdogan, mirroring the swopping of roles between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Gul is still politically active, and is not expected to retire after his term ends. According to the last constitutional amendment – which changed the presidential term from one term of seven years to two terms of five years each, and its interpretation by the Supreme Court, Gul is legally entitled to run for office again. Therefore, if Gul gives up his right to run for the presidency again, he will need to be rewarded in some way.

Additionally, there are concerns both within and without the AKP that the party would encounter difficulty in finding a leader to fill Erdogan’s position when he leaves. Since Gul served as prime minister for several months in late 2002 and early 2003, he is regarded as the most capable man to maintain the unity and popularity of the party over the next few years.

The two men met several times since 30 March 2014, including on the day after the local elections. Formal and informal discussions within the structures of the party are also taking place with regard to the presidential election. On 19 April, responding to a reporter’s question, Gul unequivocally ruled out the Russian exchange scenario on the grounds that it was not an appropriate model for Turkey. Since he was not explicit that he intended to retire, some analysts have concluded that the president’s statement was another form of barter.

However, Gul is aware that his old partner, Erdogan, will not be a mere symbolic and ceremonial president, but will exercise all the powers available to the president, including presiding over the Council of Ministers, and will likely seek a constitutional amendment to enhance presidential powers. An Erdogan presidency will probably generate a certain amount of tension with the prime minister, which would directly impact Gul and his supporters if Gul becomes the premier, as it is unlikely that Gul will be allowed sufficient freedom to manage the country’s affairs as he desires. Consequently, the exchange scenario is unlikely, but cannot be completely dismissed.

A second scenario could see Gul exiting the Turkish political arena to assume an international position. In preparation for such a scenario, talks have already begun within AKP circles to consider whether any of the current ministers could assume the position of prime minister. For most AKP insiders, the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has proven competent, has worked closely with Erdogan, and has no opponents within the party. As a result, he has recently emerged as the strongest candidate to succeed Erdogan, apart from Gul.

One or two rounds?

In the 2011 parliamentary elections, the AKP won approximately fifty per cent of the vote, while in the 30 March local elections it won 45.6 per cent of the vote. This slight decrease has raised some speculation that Erdogan may fail to achieve an absolute majority in the first round of the presidential election, and may have to contest a second round with a candidate supported by all opposition parties. This suggests that Erdogan’s ascension to the presidency is not guaranteed.

Because Turkey’s national parliamentary elections follow a proportional representation system, they are undoubtedly a significant measure of the popularity of political parties and their leaders. But local elections are not the same; they are actually local both in terms of candidates and their programmes, and in terms of the electoral system. It is certainly true that the recent local elections took place in an atmosphere of heated and serious political conflict, and that they gained a national dimension. But it is also true that this national dimension did not totally replace the local dimension.

The AKP has contested three local elections since it came to power: in 2004, 2009, and 2014. The party’s share of the vote was nearly forty-one per cent in 2004; slightly lower, at thirty-nine per cent, in 2009; and then jumped in the last election to nearly forty-six per cent. The AKP is only the second party in the history of Turkey’s multi-party system to achieve such a proportion of the vote in local elections. Only the Justice Party (led by Suleyman Demirel), achieved this during the first local election after the coup, in 1960. The difference between the Justice Party’s win and the AKP’s 2014 victory is in the percentage of the electorate that voted: less than forty per cent in 1960, compared with eighty-nine per cent in the recent elections.

Other features of the 30 March elections that are not often referred to in this debate include the fact that the AKP was the only party to win in all five Turkish electoral areas, where cities and inhabitants traditionally share one mood: the south-east, Anatolia, the north coast of the Aegean, the West and the European side. All the other parties’ support was limited to one or two of these areas, which makes AKP the only party with a nationwide grassroots base. Secondly, the AKP has increased its share of the vote in seventy-four out of eighty-one major cities, while it declined in only seven cities.

The third important feature relates to the distribution of votes to other parties; the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) achieved 27.6 per cent of the vote, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) 15.2 per cent, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) 4.2 per cent, and three per cent went to conservative or small Islamist parties. The remaining votes went to independents and small, scattered, non-Islamist parties. Using the local elections as an indicator, this distribution of votes provides Erdogan with an opportunity to garner several million more votes from both supporters of the conservative and other small Islamist parties, or from the Kurdish or even nationalist groups.

In any case, it is likely that the opposition parties, especially the CHP and the nationalist parties (which will be unable to get BDP agreement), will not be able to agree on a joint candidate. The Islamist and conservative votes, and the vast majority of Kurdish votes, will therefore go to Erdogan. The chances of the prime minister winning the presidential election in the first round are, therefore, quite high. But in the event that the election goes to a second round, the parties will find it virtually impossible to control their supporters’ votes. Therefore, it will also be difficult to mobilise CHP and MHP supporters behind a single candidate.

What kind of president?

When Erdogan was asked in an interview what type of president he would be, his response was that he would be a president who sweats, implying that he will be a working and active president, and not just a symbolic leader. He will represent the sovereignty of the state and promote a form of reconciliation between the authorities. The next presidential election will pose a significant constitutional and political dilemma for the Turkish Republic, regardless of the identity of the president. But if the president wishes to extend his executive powers, as Erdogan has indicated he does, the dilemma will be even greater.

While it is difficult for any party to achieve such a majority, if the president is elected by more than fifty percent of the votes, it will effectively mean that Turkey had chosen a president who enjoyed widespread legitimacy, but with limited powers. The legislature ignored this dilemma when it amended the presidential election system, perhaps believing that the amendment would be followed by another constitutional amendment to redistribute power between the president and the prime minister. But the attempt to write a new constitution for Turkey that would establish a joint presidential-parliamentary system did not achieve the desired outcome, and the all-party Convergence Commission failed to reach agreement on a new draft constitution last year.

What, then, is the most appropriate course of action now? One expectation is that if Erdogan becomes president, he will fully exercise the current powers of the presidency, including presiding over the Council of Ministers (a right that former presidents had not exercised). Also, he will rely on his close relationship with the incoming prime minister on the one hand, and his political and moral weight on the other, to influence major decisions of the government and the country. A second possibility is that the AKP government will introduce a constitutional amendment to redistribute power between the prime minister and the president. This will probably have to be subjected to a referendum, since it will be difficult to get parliamentary approval for such a move. The third possibility is that the current government will change the current parliamentary election system to a constituency-based system (similar to the British model), which could swing fifty to seventy parliamentary seats to the AKP, allowing the ruling party to then enjoy a two-thirds majority in parliament after the 2015 elections. It would then be possible for the AKP-dominated parliament to approve a totally new constitution, including an amendment to the government system, without having to resort to a referendum – the result of which cannot be guaranteed.


There is no certainty in the political sphere, especially in a pluralistic political system. Turkish political sentiment and preference concerning the presidency are still uncertain. However, these should be clarified during May and early June. Continuous uncertainty on this issue is not good for the country’s financial and economic development.

Erdogan is likely to become the president after August, but it is not certain that Gul will replace him at the head of the party and the government. Meanwhile, the chances of Davutoglu replacing Erdogan are strengthening. It is likely that Erdogan and his party will try to pass a constitutional amendment to give the president additional executive powers in decision making, at least in the fields of foreign policy, security and defense.

However, a transition of such magnitude will not be easy. The paranoia among opposition parties and in the centres of power inside and outside Turkey about Erdogan remaining on the political scene for another decade fuelled recent political conflict in the country. It is clear that these parties and forces will not easily assent to an Erdogan-led presidency for five or, perhaps, even ten years.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:30

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