After 11 years as Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected on August 10th President of the Republic of Turkey. 53 million Turkish voters were eligible to cast their ballots in this first ever direct universal suffrage elections of the country’s history, which led to a rare first round victory of Erdogan. He received 51.95% of the votes, despite growing opposition to his authoritarian style and allegations of corruption in the government. Despite a low turnout, his coming presidency is likely to transform the country’s balance of powers in favour of the executive.
Towards a presidential regime
Turkish incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be confirmed as Turkey’s twelfth President today. After 99% of ballots were counted, the Turkish High Election Board unsurprisingly announced he had an absolute majority of about 52% of votes. After serving four mandates as Prime Minister under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) banner, the Constitution prevented him from running for a fifth one. He will replace current President Abdullah Gül after his inauguration on August 28th.
Other candidates, former diplomat Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu received 38.34% while Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish candidate, gained 9.71%. The results follow an aggressive campaign which left little doubt about the outcome of the election : benefitting from large financial resources and media control in his favour, the AKP leader had for long been ahead of polls. His two adversaries denounced an “unfair and disproportionate” competition.
The elections were the first of their kind. Turkey’s President used to be elected indirectly and appointed by Parliament, before a 2010 constitutional reform empowered the Turkish people to directly elect their head of state. This new voting system gives greater legitimacy to the election winner. Although his predecessors were granted a mainly ceremonial role under the parliamentary regime, there is no doubt about Erdogan’s wish to reinforce the executive’s power in Turkish politics and forge a genuine presidential regime.
"Today is a new day, a milestone for Turkey, its rebirth from the ashes," declared the 60 year-old leader to his AKP followers after results were announced. He further called for reconciliation and unity and promised he would “be the president of all 77 million people, not only those who voted for [him].” “I will be a president who works for the flag, for the country, for the people,” he added.
Low turnout amid protests
August 10th’s elections brought about 73,13% of the 53 million electors to the ballot boxes. Among the 2,8 million Turkish voters living abroad, only 8% cast their vote. This figure is far below expectations. Indeed, participation is usually high in Turkey, as for last March’s municipal elections when 89% of people voted. Growing weariness could explain such a low turnout, as Erdogan’s eleven years as Prime minister raised controversy.
While Turkey emerged as a great regional economic power, NATO member and European Union candidate, he also increased the influence of Islam on politics in the historically secular Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. He improved the status of religious high schools and allowed women to wear headscarves in public offices, which was perceived by many as increasing conservatism and Islamization of Turkish politics. The country’s secular class rallied in mass protests against his government last year, known as “Gezi protests”. The violent response given by the police participated in reducing his popularity in this liberal, urban and pro-Europe part of the population. A few months later, a corruption scandal accused him and other senior AKP members of embezzling millions of dollars.
Although AKP partisans were celebrating Erdogan’s victory yesterday night, his opponents underlined the growing polarization of the society, denouncing his “divide and rule” politics. Kadri Gürsel, a journalist at Turkish newspaper Milliyet, declared that he reinforced his electorate by manipulating ethnic and religious differences among the society, threatening Turkey’s internal peace and stability, while at the same time ousting competing AKP leaders.
After gradually ending the military’s grip over Turkish politics since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan should reinforce his power after the 2015 parliamentary elections. Any other constitutional change to transform Turkey into a presidential regime would require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which the AKP does not have yet. So far, he has announced his ambition to serve two presidential terms, and run the country until 2023.