Three candidates will contest the 2014 presidential race. The current prime minister and head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is ahead in the polls. He is followed by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, joint nominee of the two main opposition parties, Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The third candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, represents the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
While it is likely that Erdogan will win the election in the first round, it is possible that there will be a second-round face-off on 24 August between Erdogan and Ihsanoglu. Either way, it is certain that Erdogan will be occupying the presidential palace in a few months. Therefore, the significance of this election does not lie in its final result, but in terms of its potential impact on the Turkish political system.
The election has already had a marked influence on the leading opposition parties, CHP and MHP, causing them to come together and to nominate a candidate who can appeal to his Islamic credentials and attract those Muslims who Erdogan has recently alienated. Ihsanoglu’s major claim to fame is his tenure as the former secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This, and his image as a devout Muslim, and the fact that he was born and raised in Egypt, however, is a double-edged sword, for it could also alienate the more secular and nationalist sections within the CHP and MHP. Nonetheless, in making this shift, which is especially unprecedented for the CHP – ‘Ataturk’s party’, which is committed to Kemalism and secularism, the two opposition parties signalled a tectonic shift within Turkish politics.
The election is also shaping up to be a referendum of sorts on the future of the Turkish political system. Erdogan has already promised a more interventionist and activist presidency. He sharply criticised Ihsanoglu for suggesting Turkey should take a ‘neutral’ position between Israel and the Palestinians, and hinted at continuing with his current interventionist foreign policy towards countries in the Middle East. Also, given his tendency to construe all criticism as a personal attack, it seems unlikely he will silently watch a new government undo the policies he had established over the last twelve years. Additionally, and more crucially, Erdogan has also expressed a preference for replacing Turkey’s parliamentary system with a US-style presidential system, while Ihsanoglu wants the highest executive authority to remain with the prime minister. Their disagreements, thus, do not only concern different interpretations of constitutional articles 101-106, which pertain to the duties and powers of the president, but also the possibility of an entirely new constitution, or substantial amendments that could radically reshape the face of Turkish democracy.
Especially worrisome in this regard is the authoritarianism Erdogan is said to have displayed over the past few years. His critics believe his attempt to turn Turkey into a presidential system is just a naked power grab. Their fears have been increased by what they perceive as Erdogan’s using his privileges as prime minister to help his presidential campaign, talk that he will install a new and more compliant leader of AKP who will be under the president’s thumb, and his assurances to the AKP that he would not allow the AKP to disintegrate after he becomes president; the president is constitutionally required to sever his ties with all political parties. Whether Erdogan will be able to make the changes he desires is not yet clear. A lot will depend on the 2015 parliamentary elections.