PRIME minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the front-runner in Turkey’s first direct presidential election today, has said that if elected he will be an active head of state who “sweats, runs and rushes around” – not just a ceremonial figurehead as past presidents have been.
It is the kind of talk that has his detractors, already alarmed at how much power Erdogan has concentrated in his hands, in a cold sweat.
Until now, Turkish presidents have played a largely symbolic role although they can call general elections, approve or reject laws passed by parliament and appoint prime ministers, the council of ministers and some high court judges.
The position also has some dormant powers, including the power to call parliament, summon cabinet meetings and preside over them. Those powers are a legacy of Turkey’s 1980 military coup and have seldom been used.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, says he intends to use these constitutional prerogatives to the full, effectively shaping the presidency into a more powerful position.
He is widely expected to appoint an amenable prime minister, which would allow him to continue to rule Turkey in much the same way as he has been as prime minister.
Erdogan, who has steered Turkey toward relative economic prosperity and enjoys widespread support, has argued that – as the first president to be directly elected by voters – he would have the mandate to rule with strengthened powers as head of state.
Such comments by a leader who has displayed an increasingly authoritarian bent are raising concerns over democracy. In the past year, Erdogan has purged thousands of police and prosecutors, increased the powers of the intelligence agency and banned access to YouTube and Twitter as he fought off corruption probes that implicated his government and family members.
Economy minister Nihat Zeybekci was quoted in Hurriyet newspaper last week as saying the position of prime minister could become obsolete if Erdogan were elected.
He said: “There wouldn’t be a prime minister, there would be a chairman of the council of ministers. Someone who chairs the council of ministers, who summons it to meetings.”
The latent constitutional powers were devised as safeguards to allow the president to intervene in exceptional circumstances. They were largely formulated to allow the 1980 coup leader – who became president in a referendum – to take command if necessary.
The power to chair the cabinet “is essentially meant to be used under conditions of emergency. If there is a war or something,” said Ilter Turan, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
“It is not one in which the president calls a session and says, ‘Let’s build a bridge. That’s not the idea.’”
Presidents take an oath to remain neutral and the constitution states they have to sever all ties with their political parties. It also says that the prime minister – not the president – is head of the executive.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Erdogan’s main rival in the presidential race, has vowed to uphold the president’s traditional role. He has said he is against the accumulation of too much power in one person’s hands and has insisted it is not up to the head of state to be involved in the day-to-day running of politics.
“It is not the president’s role to build roads and bridges,” he said as he launched his campaign in July.
Erdogan has derided those comments.
“Some of the other candidates say ‘we won’t be involved in [building] roads, with energy,”’ Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Thursday.
“I ask them to take a look at the constitution.
“They should look at the president’s responsibilities.”
WHO’S WHO IN A THREE-WAY FIGHT
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN
The 60-year-old Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for the past decade. He grew up in a tough Istanbul neighbourhood to lead the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
He has championed the cause of devout Muslim women banned from wearing headscarves in public buildings under secular laws.
Many fear he will also impose a Islamic mores on a secular state. He has been dogged by corruption scandals, which he dismisses as an attempted coup.
Ihsanoglu is a scientist and academic who was secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation from 2004-14. He is backed by about a dozen opposition parties. Ihsanoglu, 70, has focused his campaign on unity and inclusiveness, promising to ensure the presidency would be for all Turks. Ihsanoglu was raised in Cairo, a fact Erdogan has attempted to exploit by casting doubt on his “Turkishness”.
A Kurd, Demirtas, 41, heads the left-wing People’s Democratic Party. A lawyer, he became involved in rights groups in the Kurdish region and began his political career in 2007. He has tried to woo working class voters. He may attract the Kurdish vote away from Erdogan, who enjoys the support of many Kurds, about 20 per cent of the 82 million population.
THE TURKISH ELECTORAL PROCESS
Some 53 million people are eligible to cast votes in more than 160,000 polling stations across Turkey. Close to 2.8 million expatriate Turks in 54 countries were able to cast early votes between 31 July and 3 August at Turkish diplomatic missions abroad. However, fewer than 250,000 people had registered to do so.
On election day Turks are prohibited from carrying firearms or selling alcohol in a bid to minimise the risk of violence. Media outlets are barred from publishing opinion polls in the ten days leading up to the elections to prevent such surveys influencing voter decisions.
Turkey has no official exit polls and it is prohibited from publishing election results until the High Election Board allows it, usually a few hours after polls close. Large media outlets deploy reporters at polling stations who send results of the vote count back. Political party officials at polling stations also keep their own tallies. Initial results often vary, causing confusion until the electoral board announces the provisional results, scheduled for tomorrow. The final, official results are expected on Friday.
If no candidate wins an outright majority today, runoff elections between the two top contenders will be held on 24 August, when a plurality of votes will suffice.
Critics say the election campaign has been lopsided in favour of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose position has helped him dominate the airwaves. Official inaugurations of public works such as a high-speed rail link between Ankara and Istanbul turned into election rallies and his speeches were televised live.
Delegations from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe will be observing the Turkish presidential contest,
which comes months after local elections in March sparked allegations of irregularities and demands for recounts in several places.