The last eleven years of government, under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), have witnessed the widest changes ever experienced in Turkey’s Constitutional system. Although the fundamental law of Turkey has suffered many amendments since its promulgation in 1982 after a military coup d’ état and even before the rise to power of the ruling party in 2003, no other event has been as effective in affecting the Kemalist asset of the State as the policies run by the AKP in its three mandates.
The current Prime Minister, and AKP candidate to the Presidency Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is running a competition that means much more than the attempt to achieve the highest Office of the Republic in Çankaya Palace.
Erdoğan finds himself in the peculiar position of being the chief of a government which has been in charge for eleven years and, at the same time, a candidate bringing the nation a promise of new political message and of a new Turkey. Somewhat, he finds himself in the apparently contradictory position of being the one in charge from more than a decade and the one promising to cope with the past.
This contradiction is nevertheless just illusory.
After decades spent in a soar confrontation against the laics aimed to alter the current asset of the state and to give the religion a political meaning and an active role in social affairs, the conservative wing of the Turkish electorate seems to be finally able to concentrate in its hands the necessary critical mass to determine a true constitutional reform able to shift Turkey into a new entity: mostly probably a presidential Republic, probably a federal one, where religion and multiculturalism would play a much heavier role than the one they had until now.
In Turkey, issues related to national identity, multi-culturalism and coexistence of different religious denominations and streams have always been, since the creation of the Republic in 1923, very troublesome topics.
Turkey chose, then, to set for itself an unprecedented system, initially a single-party one, based on state secularism, nationalism, state-led economy, a pro-western orientation on foreign (and cultural) policy and a complex mix of extremely advanced (i.e., gender equality) and paternalistic social politics. Turkish women, for instance, have been able for decades to freely abort or divorce in historical periods when that was unthinkable, for example, in some southern-Mediterranean European Countries. The first Turkish female Member of Parliament, Hatı Çırpan, was elected in 1935, when the majority of European women neither had the right to vote.
At the same time, uttering a word in an Anatolian language different from Turkish, officially inexixstent, would have meant committing a criminal offence against “Turkishness”.
In a certain sense, the defence of the indivisibility of the Country, its not only territorial but also cultural and ethnic uniqueness have been the undeniable foundations of the Kemalist state.
In Turkish political dictionary words as “left”, “right”, “national unity” and “Republic” have quite a different meaning from their equivalents in European languages.
For many, this sort of exponentiation of the concept of State and national sense to this almost sacred level made of Kemalism a kind of Turkey’s “civil religion”. This is exactly that “past” Erdoğan committed himself to cope with.
This peculiar system has been protected until today by the intervention of the Constitutional Court and of the Armed Forces, whose commitment to the defence of the State, as defined in Turkish constitution, has been of a totally different type and quality than the one existing in Western countries.
This paternalistic politics, which have been ruled for decades by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), a leftist one according to Turkish standards, are by no means able to fulfil Turkey’s current social and economic needs.
Paradoxically enough, the first tools AKP was able to start the overthrow of the secular state in Turkey have been provided by the European Union. Demanding several, deep efforts in order to change many aspects of the status quo between State powers (mainly the military one) and personal freedoms in the Country, Europe started dismantling the apparatus that permitted the progression of the secular state. This process become manifest mainly after the end of the Sezer presidency in 2007, when the Presidency was gained by Abdullah Gül, formerly the minister of Foreign Affairs in Erdoğan’s Cabinet and whose political roots are, as Erdoğan’s ones are, in the Islamic conservative Wellness Party (Refah Partisi, RP).
The AKP has recently brilliantly overcame an electoral test, the municipal one, hushing all doubts on Erdoğan’s ability to keep the Party’s leadership.
These doubts, although mainly nourished by an harsh conflict, all internal to the Party with occurred during last year, were also related to the repression of Gezi Park protests, to bribery and corruption scandals which hit the Prime Minister and his family and to the current economic situation.
Many attempts have been done, expecially by some Cemaat-led elements working in many State apparatuses, to hinder Erdoğan’s run to the Presidency, such as leaking on YouTube part of a secret meeting among some top State officials in which one of them, in charge of the Intelligence, was suggesting a false-flag operation in order to justify a military intervention in Syria.
The result of this and many other similar attempts has been a deep epuration of many elements linked to Gülen’s movement in the judiciary and the police. The last operation, dated at some days ago, against some elements of the so-called “parallel State” has exactly the same political meaning and the same targets.
The (in)dependence from the Government of the main powers of the state, in particular the Judiciary and the Police authorities, will presumably be among the first aspects that will be reformed under the new Presidency if Erdoğan will get it.
Erdoğan seems to be the lone runner in this competition. Independently from the undoubtable endorsement received by the majority of Turkish media, what really makes the difference between his candidature and his opponents’ ones is its final goal: at his last mandate as Prime Minister, his target is being able to reform the State in a Presidential one and keep on ruling the Country as chief of State and Governent. In this sense, he is running for his fourth mandate.
Erdoğan is looking forward to having the necessary numbers in Parliament to get the reform. This will probably happen after the general elections that will be held next year. At that time he will need, anyway, to be at the right place to exert again the executive power: Çankaya Palace.
Differently than his opponents, Erdoğan can use his candidate’s stage rattling off numbers, achievements, projects: those of his government, making of his candidature, at the eyes of the voter, the one of the leader in charge now asking permission to carry on for the sake of the Country.
On the stage, he never spares mentions to the third Istanbul bridge, to the rise of foreign investments in Turkey, to the economic development of the Country and many other aspects.
Neither he spares to ask to his public how “close and dependent” was the old Turkey and how “open and independent” is the new one, under his management.
On that, he is helped by remarkable financial means and the outstanding AKP logistical organization, able to bring dozen of thousands of supporters from their hometown directly at the electoral meeting.
The topics engaged by AKP on the occasion of this elections campaign are a clear sign of the strategies the Party is pursuing: sure of the fidelity of its voters, winking at the supporters of the other main Parties (CHP. MHP) by raising specific points on sense of state and national strength, issues usually of much importance for CHP and MHP, AKP attempts to gain the simple majority needed to win the elections at the first round. The same strategy is played when it comes to the Kurdish issue: Erdoğan loves to be considered the first President who was able to face this issue. Getting more than the 50% of the electorate’s vote would be an extremely meaningful accomplishment, although still quite an assumptive one at the moment.
In his speeches, Erdoğan uses the current Gaza crisis in order to distance himself and Turkey from Israel, which he blames of “genocide”. Expressions of solidarity with the Palestine issue and references to the “brotherhood” among Muslims (an extremely meaningful expression in the Muslim world) are continuous, and seem to be an appeal not only for the most conservative part of his electorate.
In foreign politics, AKP would be more likely to bring Turkey out of the circuits where it entered since the Republic started. Belonging to NATO is still today an useful asset for Turkey, despite it is not hard to forecast a possible strategic shift in the future (Turkey recently bought weapons from China).
The EU access issue is of no importance to AKP.
Religious issues are, for sure, an extremely important part of AKP political message: during his nomination speech as formal candidate for the Presidency, Erdoğan lamented Turkey is distancing itself from “its prophets, its history, its forefathers” since “two hundred years”: the reference is at the Tanzimat, an extremely important period of reformations that started the approach of Turkey to the Western word.
This and many other expression of deep conservatism, uttered in the last days by some high-level AKP officials as well, may be an interesting observation point to what can be a not yet-completely revealed AKP extremely conservative social agenda, particularly on gender issues.
It should be noted that, at AKP meetings, many Saudi Arabian or Ottoman flags are often shown by the public together with the Turkish one.
The two other runners on these elections are the expression of three other Turkish main Parties: the Republican People’s Party (CHP), running together with the Party of the Nationalist Movement (MHP), and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
Selahattin Demirtaş is the candidate for the BDP, a Party whose ideological base is close to Kurdish and minorities’ instances, definitely a leftist one. Young, of Zaza roots, he is a MP since 2011 as representative of the Hakkari Province.
Demirtaş outlook in social issues presents some interesting aspects, especially in gender (complete parity between man and woman) and environmental issues. Progressive and laic, he stands for a “more democratic and peaceful Turkey”. This means an attention to minorities and to the Kurdish question. Hardly he will overcome the results gained by BDP in march elections.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu is the candidate running for the CHP-MHP alliance. Ihsanoğlu was born in Cairo, Egypt, from a Turkish family.
He may be proud of a diverse and prestigious career both in the Academy, where he taught Chemistry, History and Turkish Literature, and in the Diplomacy: for more than fourty years, Ihsanoğlu represented Turkey in several diplomatic and cultural international functions. During the last four years, he was the Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
Hardly this brilliant career will help him in this hard competition.
As written above, the charge of current prime minister makes of Erdoğan a candidate of another kind. He is already well-known by a public who just rewarded his Party with more than the 45% of the preferences.
Ihsanoğlu is, from certain perspectives, the image of the crisis of identity the CHP is suffering at he moment. Deprived of the support of the Army, unable to evolve independently and to follow the evolution of the times, CHP is following the clumsy policy of learning by AKP how to communicate with its own people, adjusting electoral slogans taking ideas from the AKP’s ones.
More, his policies on the Palestinian issue aroused enthusiasm among many CHP supporters, so that the Party had to show a certain sympathy for it, despite its traditional support to Israel, another base of Kemalism in foreign policy.
Ihsanoğlu was chosen for his prestige and for his “piousness”. Doing so, CHP sacrifices its main characteristic, laity, in order to present for itself a candidate whose characteristics are not in line with the ones desired by the base of the party. Unwillingly, CHP creates a candidate whose some characteristics imitate, but much more weakly, Erdoğan’s ones.
The alliance CHP-MHP is somewhat another evidence of their weakness.
CHP and MHP, that usually have not so much in common, decided their tactical alliance for simple arithmetical reasons: 28 + 17 (the percentage obtained by the two parties during the last local elections) gives 45, the result obtained AKP alone: better running together than alone.
MHP lost some of its strength, related to its nationalism, as AKP was able to attract the sympathy of many nationalists satisfied with the economic performance of the Country under AKP government.
Ihsanoğlu firstly based his campaign under the slogan “ekmek için Ekmeleddin”, a slogan playing on the assonance between the candidate’s given name and “ekmek”, a word that may mean “bread” or “sowing”, “planting”. The goal was giving the elector a sense of self-assurance and security for the future.
This strategy revealed all its weakness in front of Erdoğan’s definition as “Man of the nation”. Every AKP electoral panel shows Erdoğan’s government achievements.
Ihsanoğlu, so, suddenly become “the pride of the nation”. The style of the writing on the panels was changed, resembling now the style used by a notorious sport apparel producer.
He insists on the fact that the President must be a non-political figure, superior to parties and guarantor of the whole nation. He is surely right, as his vision reflects the current Constitution’s one. The results at the general elections that will be held next year may ratify nevertheless a new course for Turkey in this sense.