Erdogan Seeks to Emulate Ataturk in Election to Cement Power

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a rally in Istanbul, on Aug. 3. Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is entering the final stretch of a presidential campaign that might create a leadership as powerful as the founder of the modern state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

A victory for Erdogan as the first directly elected president in Turkey’s history on Aug. 10 would allow him to control the National Security Council and decide on the use of military power while keeping a grip on the government run by his party. He would also be able to name members to Turkey’s top court, which lifted a ban on Twitter in April after Erdogan sought to halt leaks from a probe into ministerial corruption.

The 60-year-old has ruled Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member and a bridge between Europe and the war-torn Middle East, for more than a decade and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu says he has become more authoritarian. Erdogan is now aiming to turn a largely ceremonial post into the most prestigious office since it was filled by Ataturk as conflicts rage in Syria, Iraq and Gaza to the south and across the Black Sea in Ukraine.

“Erdogan will consolidate his power as president with the help of a loyal government,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by phone on Aug. 3. “That would give him power to fully control the functioning of the state and make him a key leader to safeguard NATO’s borders against trans-border threats.”

Military Coups

Ataturk led Turkey from the founding of the post-Ottoman state in 1923 until his death in 1938. Since then, the military has overthrown governments in coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and pressured a fourth out of office in 1997.

Before this month’s vote, presidents were elected by parliament. They mainly refrained from using all their powers, instead becoming figureheads for state visits and ceremonies.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, would then seek to change the constitution to introduce a presidential system that’s more similar to France.

“My wish is to transform Turkey to a presidential system,” Erdogan told ATV television on July 21. “If that’s not possible, a semi-presidential system is an option. It would speed up decision making process.”

He ruled out early parliamentary elections in the interview, saying it would “damage” financial stability and confidence in the economy. Erdogan said in an interview with TV24 television late yesterday that, should he win, he would maintain close contact with the government and make sure investments are under way.

‘Different Model’

“I may not be satisfied with a weekly meeting with the prime minister, we may bring a different model of cooperation,” Erdogan told TV24, adding that the constitution clearly states that the president is head of the state and can chair cabinet meetings whenever he deems necessary.

A two-thirds majority in the 550 member parliament is needed to change the constitution or at least 330 seats to hold a referendum. The AKP has 313 seats and has failed to convince opposition parties to replace the constitution, a legacy of Turkey’s last military coup in 1980. Elections are due in 2015.

The leading contender needs to secure more than half the votes to win in the first round on Aug. 10. If no candidate prevails, then a second round will be held on Aug. 24, when the winner would simply be the one with the most ballots.

Standing against Erdogan are Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a former Organization of Islamic Cooperation secretary-general who is backed by two main opposition parties, and Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the country’s pro-Kurdish party.

Informal Power

No polls can be published in Turkey in the run-up to the election, according to local regulations.

“Erdogan will likely exercise a de facto semi-presidential system until next year’s general elections by using the formal presidential powers available to him,” said Naz Masraff, an analyst at political-risk assessor Eurasia Group in London, by e-mail on July 31. He will also employ “more informal ways, including his influence over a weak prime minister,” she said.

Economic growth has averaged 5.5 percent since 2002, with exports quadrupling and record foreign investment.

After Erdogan’s party won local elections on March 30 amid the corruption investigation, bonds rallied. Ten-year yields dropped to their lowest this year on July 24 at 8.54 percent. They since have risen to 9.44 percent.

Erdogan said the presidential system would then allow him to reform the judiciary and eliminate what he said were “legal obstacles” raised by top courts in state tenders.

If elected, he would remain in his current post until the incumbent President Abdullah Gul steps down on Aug. 28. The AKP will vote on a new chairman within 45 days. That person will also serve as the prime minister until next year’s elections, according to Erdogan.

“Whether or not he has the actual power, Erdogan will run Turkey from behind the scenes because of the sheer power of his personality,” Soner Cagaptay, author of “The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century’s First Muslim Power,” said from Washington on July 31. “It suggests that for the first time since Ataturk, Turkey will have a president whose basically running the entire show without regards to checks and balances.”