On 26 July, Turkish citizens began voting in the first round of the first direct presidential elections in the history of the Turkish Republic. Voting began at Turkish embassies and at the forty-two polling stations set up at Turkish land crossings, harbors, and airports; it will continue until 10 August, when Turkish citizens residing in Turkey will cast their ballots.
Following a 2007 referendum, direct presidential elections replaced the existing system, in accordance with which the president was elected by the Turkish parliament. Under the new electoral system, a candidate must secure an absolute majority of the popular vote (fifty percent plus one) to claim first round victory. Should no candidate secure an absolute majority, the two candidates with the highest percentage of the popular vote will compete in a second round of elections, scheduled—and widely expected to take place—on 25 August.
The election is historic for its “firsts.” It is the first direct presidential election in Turkish history. It is also the first election in which Turkish citizens living abroad can cast a ballot at embassies. Since the same opportunity was not afforded in parliamentary elections, the issue has attracted criticism, with some accusing the current government of trying to capitalize on the popularity of Prime Minister and presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan among Turkish expats, particularly in Germany.
But the election could also be historical for its “lasts.” If the Prime Minister becomes president (as is widely expected, after the second round), the current president, Abdullah Gül, may be the last to have held a largely ceremonial post in a parliamentary republic. Declaring that the times of a passive presidency are over, Erdoğan has pledged to be an “active” president, and expressed interest in transforming the office into an executive presidency, with greater and more wide-reaching powers. Suggesting that nothing should happen in a state without the authorization of the president, as head of state, Erdoğan has promised active involvement in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. In the context of the increasing authoritarianism, paternalism, and micromanagement that had characterized the Prime Minister’s third term in office, that is precisely what his critics fear.
Although not strictly incumbent, Erdoğan appears so in all but lexical precision. His third term at the helm of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has largely been a one-man show, supported by a small cast of carefully groomed characters: Bülent Arınç, who is best known for shedding frequent and copious tears in response to Erdoğan’s speeches, but who has more recently come under scrutiny for reprimanding women who laugh in public, who thus, according to him, fray the moral fabric of society; Yiğit Bulut, who is remembered for accusing Gezi Park protesters of attempting to assassinate the Prime Minister by means of telekinesis; Sümeyye Erdoğan, the Prime Minister’s daughter and advisor, whose reported 625,000 TL (240,000 Euro) annual consultancy fee raised more than a few eyebrows; and Egemen Bağış, the former Minister of EU Affairs, accused of considerable involvement in the corruption scandals that dominated Turkish and international headlines at the close of 2013.
Those unfamiliar with Turkish politics—particularly the much-discussed “authoritarian turn” of the AKP government—might be excused for thinking that Erdoğan’s presidency would secure, and indeed deepen, Turkey’s burgeoning democracy. Taken at face value, Erdoğan’s presidential platform certainly gives that impression. Branding himself the candidate of “change, democracy, and welfare” against “conservatism and economic oligarchy,” Erdoğan has pledged to continue his efforts to make Turkey an economic powerhouse, a pluralist democracy grounded on human rights, and a respected, key player in regional and international relations. Citing his party’s record on democratization, welfare, urbanization, and international relations, he has pledged a “New Turkey,” one that is pluralist, democratic, environmentally conscious, a leader in knowledge production, and a force for international peace. In short—and in Erdoğan’s own words—a “global brand name.”
Yet for observers of Turkish politics, Erdoğan’s campaign promises cannot but ring hollow—save perhaps the characterization of Turkey as a “brand name,” which critics of the AKP’s "growth fetishism" and its accompanying environmental degradation will recognize as all too real. While the 2013 Gezi Park protests shone an international spotlight on the authoritarian turn of the AKP government, the erosion of democratic and human rights and the increasing arrogance and paternalism of Erdoğan were long in the making and continue unabated. The serious violations of human and democratic rights during the Gezi Park protests have been meticulously documented and analyzed in the pages of this and other publications. Their sheer number should give pause to anyone listening to Erdoğan’s campaign promises of deeper democratization—and indeed, his account of his unimpeachable democratic record.
The arrogance and impunity with which he and his small menagerie of political and business associates operate was revealed during the epic corruption scandal of 2013-14. Erdoğan, his family, and his associates emerged unscathed, while large numbers of bureaucrats, lawyers, prosecutors, and police officers involved in the investigation were “relocated,” “reassigned,” or simply fired. The devastating consequences of privatization, corruption, and government and corporate impunity were exposed by the Soma mining disaster, which claimed 301 lives in May 2014—less than three weeks after the AKP government rejected opposition calls for a parliamentary investigation of its safety. Brushing the worst mining disaster in Turkish history aside, Erdoğan argued that “explosions like this happen all the time,” while one of his advisors, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed repeatedly kicking a protester at the site (he subsequently took medical leave to nurse the leg he used to kick the protester). All this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Erdoğan’s presidential candidacy is supported by the AKP and the Motherland Party (a center-right party, dominant on the Turkish political scene under the leadership of Turgut Özal—architect of the neo-liberalization of the Turkish economy in the 1980s and 1990s—but with very little influence following the establishment of the AKP). While it is expected that Erdoğan will not secure an absolute majority in the first round of elections, he is widely expected to win the second. Like his third term in office, his presidential candidacy has been mired in controversy. In violation of Turkish electoral law, which prohibits state officials from running for the presidency, Erdoğan has refused to resign from the office of Prime Minister (with the semantic manoeuver of being an “elected” rather than “state” official). This has prompted speculation that he will remain Prime Minister in the unlikely event that he loses the presidential election, and that he is trying to “pull a Medvedev” (in reference to the musical chairs the Putin-Medvedev duo have been playing in Russia, effectively consolidating power in the hands of Putin).
To say that the campaign coverage has been biased would be the understatement of the year. Erdoğan’s campaign has received 533 minutes of coverage on Turkey’s three main state television channels (TRT Türk, TRT 1, and TRT Haber). The two other candidates have received a combined total of just over four minutes—with Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu receiving three minutes and twenty-five seconds and Selahattin Demirtaş forty-five seconds of coverage. According to a TRT spokesperson, Erdoğan`s candidacy is simply more "newsworthy."
“The White Horse”
Although the “dark horse” might seem a more appropriate characterization of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, his campaign has taken great pains to portray him as anything but. A consensus candidate of the two main opposition parties—the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—İhsanoğlu has been branded as the establishment’s antithesis of Erdoğan: a soft-spoken, mild-mannered intellectual (of the organic variety) who would mend the domestic and international fences bulldozed by Erdoğan’s arrogance, who would replace Erdoğan’s fiery rhetoric wıth concrete action, and who would restore the government’s domestic and international credibility.
In addition to the CHP and MHP—which have long been concerned with splitting the anti-AKP vote—İhsanoğlu’s candidacy is also supported by a range of center, right-of-center, and some left-nationalist parties: the BTP (Independent Turkey Party), a conservative, nationalist, anti-EU party; the DP (Democratic Party) and DYP (Right Path Party), both neoliberal, socially-conservative parties that once formed a single political party; the DSP (Democratic Left Party), a social democratic, Kemalist party; the BBP (Great Unity Party), an ultra-nationalist party accused of complicity in the assassination of Hrant Dink; the LDP (Liberal Democracy Party), politically liberal (in the classic sense) and economically neo-liberal; the TSİP (Turkey Socialist Worker’s Party); the DEV-PARTY (Revolutionary People’s Party); the TURK Party (Social Alliance, Reform and Development Party), a centrist political party; the ultra-nationalist HAP (Rights and Justice Party); and the KP (Women’s Party).
Although a newcomer to the Turkish political scene, İhsanoğlu has the kind of credentials the CHP and MHP hope might split the Erdoğan vote. Born in Cairo, İhsanoğlu is a graduate of Ain-Shams and Al-Ahzar Universities, a scholar of the history of science in Islam, founder of the History of Science Department at Istanbul University, namesake of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science award, and Visiting Professor at a number of universities in Europe. An active member of UNESCO and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (IOC), he became the latter`s first elected Secretary General in 2004 and was instrumental in adding references to human rights, cooperation against terrorism, and intercultural dialogue into the IOC Charter.
İhsanoğlu has fought a difficult campaign, not least because of the lack of media coverage and Erdoğan’s attempts to use his foreign birth and education to question his knowledge of, and commitment to, Turkish politics. The constituency to which he must appeal is the broadest of all three candidates, comprised as it is of groups with very different and often contradictory social, political, cultural, and economic values. His campaign promises to build a knowledge society (which should appeal to his, as well as to Erdoğan’s, neo-liberal constituency) and a campaign to erase credit card debt (which has a populist ring that may appeal to some of Erdoğan’s constituency, but may also appeal to İhsanoğlu’s own left-of-center constituency). His platform also includes references to respect for republican values (a clear nod to CHP voters) and the unity of peoples—a veiled reference to criticism that Erdoğan has not served the entire country, but merely “his own fifty percent.” Such formulations are vague enough to try to appeal to a whole gamut of voters, from those concerned with preserving the sanctity of the nation to those interested in a “unity in difference.” Positioning himself directly against Erdoğan, İhsanoğlu also promises to ensure that constitutional change does not lead to dictatorship (a not-so-veiled reference to the “active” and “empowered” presidency proposed by Erdoğan); to ensure that the drive to development and urbanization is tempered by environmental considerations; and to promote an “active citizenship policy” (a direct challenge to Erdoğan’s articulation of democracy as beginning and ending at the ballot box).
İhsanoğlu is widely expected to contest Erdoğan in the second round of elections. Although some might find his platform appealing, the vast majority of the votes cast for İhsanoğlu are votes cast against Erdoğan. Not all of the anti-Erdoğan vote will go to İhsanoğlu in the first round—many of those active in the Gezi Park protests plan on supporting Selahattin Demirtaş. However, as Demirtaş has nowhere near the amount of popular support required to move to the second round, his votes will go to İhsanoğlu or turn into abstentions in the second round.
“The Gezi Candidate”
Selahattin Demirtaş represents some of the most progressive currents of Gezi and Kurdish politics. His presidential candidacy is supported by the EMEP (Labor Party), the EHP (Proletarian Action Party), and the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party)—which has absorbed the entire parliamentary caucus of the pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), includes the DSİP (Revolutionary Socialist Worker’s Party), SDP (Socialist Democracy Party), SYKP (Socialist Rebirth Party), and YSGP (Greens and Left Future Party), and is also supported by various human rights organizations.
A lawyer by training, Demirtas has been active in the Human Rights Association of Turkey, and is a founding member of the Diyarbakır branch of Amnesty International. One of the emerging leaders of the Kurdish political movement, Demirtaş’s “Kurdish politics” differ in some respects from the dominant streams of previous generations. For Demirtaş and his supporters, Kurdish politics can (and should) become more open and inclusive—locating Kurdish rights in the context of human, democratic, and minority rights, and aligning itself with other fledgling rights-based and environmental movements.
Demirtaş has promised a more meaningful democracy and a rights-based political regime. He has voiced full and public support for conscientious objection to military service. He has maintained that his presidency would be consultative and responsive to local voices and concerns. And he has made numerous, not-so-veiled references to Erdoğan’s arrogance and dictatorial tendencies. If he is out after the first round (as is widely expected), Demirtaş has declared that he will not support either of the two remaining candidates—as the politics of both are too far removed from his own political beliefs.
Nothing short of a miracle is required for Demirtaş to reach the second round—partially, but by no means exclusively, because for the majority of the electorate an ethnically Kurdish candidate can still only represent “Kurdish interests.” Ironically, of the two opposing candidates, he is the only one who could actually beat Erdoğan in the second round.
Turkey’s first direct presidential elections (and, as some fear, its last as a parliamentary republic) are all but a done deal. Yet they will be watched with great interest. Erdoğan’s opposition are hoping for a two-round election that would indicate that Erdoğan has lost significant support in the aftermath of Gezi—and might just cut him down to size. Supporters of Demirtaş will hope for a good showing, which might indicate that the Turkish electorate is beginning to judge Kurdish politicians on their platform rather than their ethnic identity. Erdoğan and his supporters will, of course, want to hold on to their “fifty percent.” Should that happen, there will be dark days ahead for Turkish democracy.