July 2 (Bloomberg) -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan is building himself a pedestal from which to continue his challenge to the most powerful figure of modern Turkey.
After spending much of his decade as prime minister chipping away at the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, Erdogan yesterday announced he will run for the presidency. While the job has been largely a ceremonial role since Ataturk’s death in 1938, political analysts say that, assuming he wins, Erdogan will attempt to change the constitution to give himself more authority.
“Erdogan has consistently sought to undermine Ataturk’s legacy for a secular European-looking state with his own Middle East-looking vision,” Soner Cagaptay, author of “The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century’s First Muslim Power,” said in a phone interview from Washington. “If he becomes president, he will seek to increase his power to do more of the same.”
A victory for Erdogan in August’s elections would make him the first directly elected president in Turkey’s history and cement his position as the country’s most dominant leader since Ataturk. It’s likely to also help entrench the network of business and personal interests around him that burst into the open last year in an unprecedented corruption scandal, according to Anthony Skinner, head of analysis at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based global risk forecasting company.
Erdogan enters the race for president after spearheading an economic boom during his time as prime minister that has seen the economy more than triple in size, while he pursued an Islamic-rooted agenda. He partially lifted a ban on head scarves in 2013 and curtailed the power of the military, which had acted as the main guardian of the secular system installed by Ataturk.
Economic growth has averaged 5.5 percent since 2002, compared with about 4 percent in the 1990s. Exports quadrupled and foreign investment rose to a record.
Voters rewarded his party with a series of electoral wins, the last of which was in March’s local elections, as they dismissed the graft probe that had ensnared members of Erdogan’s family and cabinet.
“Assuming that he is able to appoint a pliant prime minister and exercise executive power from the presidential palace, Erdogan will continue to be able to call the shots,” said Skinner. “The March municipal election results show that corruption allegations have hardly dented Erdogan’s strong base of support.”
To overhaul the parliamentary system, though, Erdogan’s party needs a parliamentary majority it doesn’t currently enjoy. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2015.
Erdogan’s government has downplayed Ataturk’s legacy, with low-key celebrations of national holidays associated with the republic’s founder, without openly confronting it. The presidential bid announced yesterday puts Erdogan two elections away from staying in power until 2023, the centennial of the country’s birth.
The increasingly prosperous Turkey that Erdogan presides over contrasts with the conflict-ravaged land Ataturk took charge of after World War I. Then, as Western powers drew up plans to partition territory of the former Ottoman Empire, Ataturk mustered a rebel army and freed the country from occupying British, French, Greek and Italian troops, laying the foundations of the modern secular Turkish republic.
Ataturk’s framed portraits still decorate schools, businesses, public offices and homes, while banknotes and coins feature his profile.
Erdogan and his government have denied the corruption allegations that began to swirl in December. In recent months, he has purged hundreds of police and judicial officials, and temporarily blocked access to YouTube after alleged wiretapping records from the graft probe were posted on the video-sharing site. The government also temporarily blocked Twitter on similar grounds.
The crackdown, as well as the violent suppression of anti-government protests since 2013, have prompted his critics to accuse him of creating an authoritarian regime.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, warned on June 20 that should a future President Erdogan handpick a prime minister, he’ll further insulate himself from accountability.
“It will be a president with no responsibility for his actions,” he said. “The drum will be hanging from the premier’s neck but the drum stick will be held by the president.”
The two main opposition parties have nominated Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to run against Erdogan next month.
A poll conducted between June 18-21 by the Ankara-based polling company Objective Research Center, found Erdogan winning 54 percent compared with 39.4 percent for his rival. The polling agency said that it interviewed 3,026 people and gave no margin of error.
“Erdogan’s temperament, his popularity, and the fact that he would be the first directly-elected president will ensure that the presidency under him will acquire far greater weight as a decision-making office,” said Wolfango Piccoli, managing director at Teneo Intelligence in London. “He 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.”
Erdogan, in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper in November, 2012, said that a presidential system would strengthen Turkey’s democracy by limiting political wrangling and speeding up the process of state-asset sales.
“We believe this new system can be successfully implemented in Turkey and even enhance stability and confidence,” Erdogan told ambassadors from European Union countries on June 24 in a televised speech.
Without changing the constitution, Erdogan will need his party’s cooperation to pass his agenda, said Ibrahim Kaboglu, a professor of constitutional law at Istanbul’s Marmara University.
In the meantime, as president, Erdogan would have powers to convene the cabinet, and in some circumstances, issue decrees, return laws to parliament, and call elections.
He is also able to select members to the judiciary and appoint his successor as premier. The incumbent President Abdullah Gul, also from Erdogan’s AK Party, has not ruled out switching posts with Erdogan, much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev did in 2012.
‘Going to Win’
“If the president decides to preside over cabinet meetings frequently, that would create serious problems regarding the legitimacy of the premier,” said Gokhan Bacik, a political scientist at Ipek University in Ankara.
Erdogan decided to run after his party didn’t revoke a self-imposed rule preventing him from seeking more than three terms. In his speech yesterday, he pledged to unify the country. “We’ll build the new Turkey together,” he said.
“He is the guy who made Turkey into a middle-income society and I think people are rewarding him for doing that,” said Cagaptay. “As long as the economy continues to hum, he is going to win.”
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