Is Turkey moving towards a presidential system? Erdogan’s plans and challenges
Matteo Tacconi 28 August 2014

The battle against Hizmet and the Caesarist option

While the result of these elections was, in many ways, a given, but the manner in which Erdogan will interpret the presidency is causing disputes. Some are of the opinion that he wishes to be the only person in charge, tempted by the Caesarist option. This vision is linked to developments in the past few months that saw Erdogan deal harshly with the Gezi Park protests and then clash fiercely with Fetullah Gulen, the  influential imam in self-imposed exile in the United States. Gulen is the founder of Hizmet, a religious brotherhood with tentacle-like links to the bureaucracy, the media and education.

Gulen, in some ways, is considered the moderate representative of Turkish political Islam, and initially supported Erdogan and the AKP. The movement supported its rise to power, mobilising its consensus leverage and encouraging battles against the military in courts where the Gulen movement has many supporters. As the orthodox guardian of secularism introduced by the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the army was an obstacle to the AKP’s ascent, but also many believe to democratic development.

Once they had weakened the army, Erdogan and Gulen started, however, to drift apart. The imam recently criticised the management of the Gezi Park protests, as well as changes in foreign policy marked by a rift in relations with Israel, the assertive stand assumed within the old Ottoman borders and a loosening of relations with the European Union. Erdogan, according to Gulen, has been unable to establish limits to his thirst for power, shifting towards authoritarianism and putting at risk the “Turkish model”; that balanced cocktail of Islam, democracy and economic progress. Erdogan has in turn expressed his belief that Gulen had tried to overturn the government, using the police, judges and the press. Tension was increased by the great corruption scandal that a few months ago dominated the stage, following news that a number of relatives of AKP ministers and entrepreneurs close to the party’s leadership, had been involved in managing bribes. According to Erdogan, this was a plot orchestrated by central police stations and courts close to Gulen. Not immune to populist tension, Erdogan then embarked upon a series of purges and organised his extremely focused campaign both in view of the end of March local elections and the presidential election.

The numbers supported his theories. However, some believe that this great show of muscle indicates that Erdogan intends to manage the presidency in a personal and self-centred manner, without many filters and counterweights.

The presidency at the system’s centre

On the other hand there is a school of thought that emphasises how the nature of the electoral campaigns and political battles of recent months were physiological, aimed only at the elections. Having won, Erdogan will try and be more moderate, they say. In truth, the speech he made when polling stations closed and votes were counted, seemed an appeasing one. As reported by the Reuters news agency, Erdogan used a less divisive lexicon, once again speaking of Turkiyeli (citizens of Turkey) rather than of Turks, as if to signal an inclusive attitude, rather than certain radical and nationalist tones heard during the election campaign.

Leaving aside the different perceptions concerning the manner in which Erdogan will handle the presidency, there are few doubts regarding the fact that he intends to transform this appointment from its currently formal status to the political system’s command centre, also because for the first time it was a direct election.

Technically speaking, what is at stake is the transition to a presidential republic. Constitutional reform will, however, be required and, above all, a parliamentary majority capable of guaranteeing it. At the moment the AKP has no such majority. 

One must now look to the June 2015 general election. For the moment, in view of evolving events, the first indicators one should consider will be the appointment of the new prime minister and the finance minister.

The divergence with Gul

Erdogan has appointed as prime minster the current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He was the author of the doctrine of “strategic depth”, which the press renamed “neo-Ottomanism” and is based on re-launching relations with troublesome neighbours (Syria and Iran) and the exercising of economic and political influence in the area once controlled by the Sublime Porte; the Gulf, north Africa and the Balkans.

There are quite a few experts who believe that this strategy has not achieved resounding results. Turkey supported the Egyptian uprising, and watched it fail. It made peace with Syria, to then ask, in vain, for military intervention against Assad’s regime. In the meantime, the dialogue with Brussels has become more complicated and in the Balkans this has also assumed competitive undertones.

This has not greatly affected Erdogan’s choice. Davutoglu will become prime minister because he is a loyal ally and is trusted by the AKP’s nomenklatura, as well as being an important personality, but he is not sufficiently influential to question Erdogan’s leadership. 

Davutoglu’s appointment, however, has had significant collateral consequences, resulting in a rift between Erdogan and another of the AKP’s important personalities, incumbent President Abdullah Gul, one of the party’s most prestigious leaders. Gul was prime minister before Erdogan was able to assume leadership of the country in 2003, having been banned from holding state appointments. He then became foreign minister, until 2007, when he became Turkey’s head of state, the first openly Muslim president in the country’s history.

Gul expected to be appointed prime minister instead of Davutoglu, against whom however, he had nothing negative to say, but appreciates and supports him. He also opposes Erdogan’s wish to reorganise party ranks, allowing the younger generation more space and power, as reported by The Voice of America. Furthermore, Gul, whose position is more moderate than Erdogan’s, has been attacked in recent weeks by newspapers close to the AKP, but more supportive of the party’s more conservative wing. It is said that this has grieved him. 

Gul has explained that having left the presidential palace, he does not intend to abandon politics. This is such a broad statement that it remains open to various interpretations. On the one hand, it is whispered that he may form as new political party, while, on the other, it is said that this would be a losing choice. Gul cannot oppose Erdogan’s hegemony and by leaving the AKP he would risk playing into the hands of Fetullah Gulen, which he does not wish to do since his relationship with the imam are anything but good, as emphasised by Al Monitor.

Erdogan, on the other hand, cannot get rid of Gul. His moderate stance broadens the AKP’s electoral attraction and this is a decisive factor in the run up to the 2015 elections. In other words, as prime minister Gul would erode the role of undisputed leader that Erdogan is carving out for himself, but the AKP without Gul might not get enough votes to obtain a two-thirds majority in parliament. A match of subtle balances will be played in the coming months.

The economic factor

The AKP’s electoral success is the result of impressive growth experience by Turkey since 2002. The economy has expanded tripling individual income and creating a real middle class. 

Estimates show that over the coming years, Turkey’s GPD will continue to increase at a good rate. All of this is to Erdogan’s advantage. However, there are hidden traps below the surface of crude numbers. Turkey presents a number of imbalances with soaring inflation, an alarming current account deficit and a lower inclination to save. Moreover, the performance of the economy is driven by foreign capital arriving in large amounts from the West. This due to the economic crisis and stimulus policies enacted by the Federal Reserve (acquisition of government bonds and lower interest rates), which has moved capital to emerging markets where there are higher risks, but also greater profit margins.

Now that  the Federal Reserve is reducing quantitative easing, one can already see capital moving towards the First World where risks are lower. In the meantime, the Turkish lira has weakened and the Central Bank has had to intervene significantly. In other words, Erdogan is obliged to closely watch the economy, containing possible negative setbacks the global economy may inflict on the country, potentially affecting the AKP’s consensus.

Translated by Francesca Simmons