As he had long suggested he would do, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday announced his candidacy for the presidency in a splashy ceremony in Ankara. Expected by most observers to win (the question for now is really whether he does it in the first or second round), Erdogan would become Turkey's first directly elected president, a move his supporters say is a natural step for a man who is the country's most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and which critics say will only lead towards a more authoritarian government. Either way, while the road towards the office of the president appears open for Erdogan -- despite the opposition's intriguing candidate choice -- the PM faces some major challenges in his quest to turn the presidency into an even more powerful position than it already is.
Up until now, Turkey's president has been chosen by Parliament. Like in many other parliamentary systems, the Turkish president is something of a figurehead, with the Prime Minister wielding the real power. But the Turkish presidency, as defined by a constitution written by the military after the 1980 coup, has been something of a hybrid office, with the president wielding some important powers designed to make him a kind of ultimate guardian of the state (that is secularist and Kemalist) structure. For this reason, there has long been a demand in Turkey for a new constitution, one which redefines and limits the powers of the president, making it one that's more in line with other parliamentary systems.
For Erdogan and his supporters in the Justice and Development Party (AKP), having the president be elected directly by the people is instead the answer to the problem of having an unaccountable president. Writing in Daily Sabah, an English-language edition of one of Turkey's more vocal pro-government papers, Ibrahim Kalin, an advisor to Erdogan, suggested the PM's ascendancy to the presidency by popular vote would provide Turkey with a better system of governance. Writes Kalin:
The current system gives too many powers to the president for a parliamentary democracy and yet too little for a presidential system. In theory, this model has the potential to create political crisis between the president and the government, as we saw during Ahmet Necdet Sezer's presidency from 2000 to 2007. But it is very unlikely that Erdoğan's presidency will cause any conflict with the ruling AK Party of which he is theuncontested leader. Furthermore, Erdoğan sees no conflict between being president and having a political-party identity.
Secondly, the popular mandate that will be given to the new president will make the office of the president more than just a ceremonial place. It will invest it with political meaning, function and force. Unlike the current system, the popularly elected president will be accountable to his voters and expected to deliver on his promises. This will require a much closer working relationship with the government. When used properly, this will be an additional checks-and-balances element for the executive power.
“If elected, I will be everyone’s president,” Erdogan said at his announcement event in Ankara yesterday. “It will be a different type of presidency.” Indeed, the concern among many is that Erdogan's will be a very different presidency, one where ever more power is consolidated in the hands of the executive with little in the way of checks and balances. As political analyst Wolfgango Piccoli told the Wall Street Journal: "This will take Turkey into uncharted waters. Erdogan will bring to the office his own style of aggressively defiant government, typified by micro-management, bullying of opponents and a penchant for polarization rather than conciliation, all facilitated by a cadre of sycophantic advisers."
Still, while Erdogan is expected to become president, some important questions remain about what will happen once he takes office. For one, there is the issue of what is the future of the AKP once Erdogan becomes president, which requires that he leave the party. Although he is expected to appoint a compliant caretaker PM until the next elections, currently set for next year, there is the possibility that the party could fracture without Erdogan's strong hand and personality at the helm. More importantly, there is also the question of whether Erdogan will be able to orchestrate the parliamentary maneuvers necessary for institutionalizing through constitutional changes the increased powers he would like to add to the already powerful office of the president. Since such changes would require a two-thirds majority, something the AKP is not likely to achieve in the next election, Erdogan may be forced to increase his presidential powers simply through, as many have put, the "sheer force" of his personality. This could ultimately lead to legal challenges through Turkey's increasingly assertive Constitutional Court and even more polarization and questions about the health of Turkey's democracy.
For now, with the election set for August 10, Turks can expect several weeks of being bombarded with ads featuring the image and voice of the omnipresent Erdogan. The PM and his circle promise this election will be a highpoint for Turkish democracy, but it’s coming off as more of a mockery of the democratic process -- one that looks very likely to be made legitimate by popular acclaim.