Aug. 1, 2014, 4:02 p.m.
Turkey will hold a first round of presidential elections on August 10th, 2014.[i] If no candidate garners more than fifty percent of the vote a second round will be held on August 24th.[ii] For the first time in the Turkey’s history, voters will directly elect their President. While previously the President was elected by parliament, in 2007 Turkey held a referendum and almost seventy percent of participants voted in favor of allowing the President to be directly elected.[iii] Founded as a republic in 1923 Turkey’s population is over eighty million, and the nation is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member (since 1952), extending over Europe and Asia.[iv][v] The results of this contest will therefore significantly impact the region and global community.
On Sunday August 10th, three candidates will be compete for the Presidency: Prime Minister of 11 years Recep Tayyip ERDOGAN, 60, of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP); Ekmeleddin ISHSANOGLU, 70, of the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) and National Action Party (NHP); and Selahattin DEMIRTAS, 41, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).[vi] Coming to power in 2003, frontrunner and Prime Minister ERDOGAN has served three terms as Prime Minister and due to the AKP’s own rules, he is restricted from seeking a fourth term.[vii] ERDOGAN is credited with growing the country’s economy, ending the military’s dominance over political life, and establishing better relations with the Kurdish population.[viii] The second candidate, ISHSANOGLU, holds a doctorate in Ottoman history and culture and was the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).[ix] He is the nominee of Turkey’s two main opposition parties, who back him in order to “exploit people’s conservative values.”[x] The final candidate, DEMIRTAS, is a human rights lawyer and Kurdish and Sunni politician, who has garnered support among women, and religious and ethnic minority groups.[xi] While he does not have enough support to beat ERDOGAN, some analysts believe that DEMIRTAS “has the potential to unite a coalition that could make a difference in Turkey’s 2015 elections.”[xii]
Turkey’s President is also the Chief of State—a position considered largely ceremonial. Yet many observers see ERDOGAN positioning himself to continue his political dominance by seeking to strengthen the presidency, evident a failed AKP proposal to extend presidential powers in 2012.[xiii] Many forecast that he will play a significant role in his party’s selection of a new Prime Minister, and if the AKP wins parliamentary elections in June 2015, his control of parliament will continue.[xiv] ERDOGAN’s political maneuvering around the presidency has even sparked comparisons of him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who switched roles in order to maintain power.[xv] Yet in spite of a year of domestic setbacks such as anti-government protests, a break with ally and cleric Fethullah GULEN, a ban on YouTube and Twitter, and a corruption scandal, Prime Minister ERDOGAN maintains a strong support base: according to online polls, 48 percent of the Turkish electorate express the view that ERDOGAN has a positive influence on Turkey.[xvi]
In such an environment, some have argued that the only way to counter ERDOGAN’s power would be for current President and ERDOGAN ally, Abdullah GUL, having a strong conviction for democracy, to run for Prime Minister in next year’s parliamentary elections. However, he has indicated he will not seek the office.[xvii]
Ultimately, the first direct presidential election in Turkey presents voters an opportunity to increase their role in the governing of their state. And regardless of the outcome, the new President will be tasked to tackle major foreign policy issues such as stalled membership talks with the European Union (EU), finalizing an agreement with the Kurdish separatist group the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), repairing the country’s relationship with Israel, confronting instability on the Syrian and Iraqi borders, and more generally, defining its (potentially significant) role in the Middle East. Moreover, Turkey’s next President will have to confront a global perception that the country has veered away from its democratic identity—a formidable challenge, especially if the President is ERDOGAN.