Turkish elections mark a crucial moment for the country’s democratic future

A big win for Erdogan doesn’t bode well for Turkish democracy. Sedat Suna/EPA

Turkey’s presidential elections mark a crucial moment for the country, not only because it is the first time that a president will be elected directly by the people, but the future of the country’s political system is being decided. A landslide victory for the favourite, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could severely reduce the quality of Turkey’s democracy.

Previously the president was chosen by parliament. According to Turkey’s constitution, the presidency is a ceremonial office whereby the incumbent is expected to act impartially, cutting any ties with his party. But, following a crisis in 2007 over deciding the presidency, the government held a referendum on a constitutional amendment to have a directly elected president – the public voted for a vote.

Three candidates, two systems

The favourite to win, current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has clearly stated his intentions to act as an active president and if possible to change the constitution by turning the ceremonial post into an executive presidency. His party, the ruling AKP, claim that Turkish society will embrace the presidential system through this election, as the president will be chosen by popular vote.

The two candidates standing against Erdoğan are both against expanding the presidency’s power. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the centre-left CHP and the extreme right MHP parties, has warned that a president with a political agenda would increase already existing tensions in Turkish society. Throughout his campaign he has emphasised that any elected president should stand above and beyond party politics and remain impartial in times of crisis.

Similarly, the third candidate Selahattin Demirtaş bases his campaign on diversity, human rights and democracy, in an attempt to expand his appeal to left-leaning non-Kurdish voters. The election of either İhsanoğlu or Demirtaş would maintain the fairly symbolic presidency within a parliamentary system.

Erdoğan’s understanding of democracy

If Erdoğan manages to win in the first round with more than 54% of the vote, he will probably go for early elections in November. General elections are due in June 2015 and so he will be hoping to gain a majority in parliament, which would give his AKP party the power to rewrite the constitution alone. This would then lead to a major change in the political system towards presidentialism, which in turn would have detrimental effects on the future of Turkish democracy.

Erdoğan already has a majoritarian understanding of democracy, which he believes gives him the right to rule without any checks and balances as long as he manages to receive the majority of the vote. Particularly after his third election victory in 2011, Erdoğan has become much more authoritarian, autocratic and extremely intolerant of any kind of dissent.

He has not refrained from polarising different groups in Turkish society – Sunni and Alevi Muslims, Kurds and Turks, Muslims and non-Muslims. For instance, in the build up to the election he has said:

Kilicdaroglu [the leader of the CHP], you are Alevi, I am Sunni. Just say it. And Demirtas [the Presidential candidate for HDP], you are Zazaki. Don’t be afraid to say it.

He tries to touch upon conflicts related to minorities in society and defines himself as a member of the majority.

If he became president with extensive powers, whether through constitutional provisions or through system change, needless to say polarisation in society would increase, the role of opposition parties would be weakened and personalisation and clientelism in politics would become the norm. All of this will decrease the quality of Turkish democracy, as they tend to contribute to and sustain an authoritarian style of government.

In the event of a runoff

A runoff would be in the best interest of Turkey, though the probability of this happening is weak. In the event of a runoff, Erdoğan would have to appeal to the Kurdish vote, which would certainly strengthen their bargaining power. Plus, in the second round İhsanoğlu would likely attract the staunchly secularist CHP voters who stayed away from the polls in the first round. This might change the electoral balance of power.

Much more importantly, even though he would still probably win the second-round, the experience of an election loss would soften Erdoğan’s harsh stance and force him to adopt reconciliatory attitudes in the constitution-making process. It would also challenge his strong hold over his party. After all, it also has to be kept in mind that Erdoğan’s move to a presidency with its current constitutional powers might alter the balance of power in the party and lead to fighting amongst important personalities in the absence of a charismatic leader, thereby leading to the dissolution of the party.

All that said, the very decision of leaving presidential elections to the popular vote was not a well thought through move, as nobody is sure what kind of results these elections will produce. Looking at the current picture, however, it’s likely that after winning three general elections, three local elections and two referendums, a presidential election victory for Erdoğan will create an “omnipotent” political leader – at least in his own mind.

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