This year was not easy for the Turkey’s Prime Minister. In December the country had been flooded with tapes that brought corruption charges to his cabinet members. Not long after that Erdoğan and his son were also said to be involved in the scandal. Given the fact that the local elections were to due be held in three months from that moment, situation seemed even more difficult. Perhaps no one would pay much attention to the polling unless it had been treated as a barometer before the presidential elections taking place in August 2014. Voting for a new president has been described as one of the most important events, as it will shape the country’s political landscape in the coming decade. Taking all these facts into consideration, one should not be surprised that the opposition wanted to take advantage of the corruption scandal and thus tried to make people believe that the March local elections are nothing more than a popularity poll for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey’s Prime Minister perfectly understood what was at stake. He knew that he had to win this battle if he wanted to become the Turkey’s next president.
When the whole country had been waiting for the local elections results, the Turkish opposition cared only about two things. Firstly, it desired to succeed in Ankara and Istanbul. The former Ottoman Empire’s capital city has a great, nearly magical, significance in the Turkish politics – the legend has it that whoever wins in Istanbul therefore rule the country. The second issue was the elections result of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It was an open secret in Turkey that the closer the party gets to 45% support, the bigger was a chance of Erdoğan to become the party’s presidential candidate. That was what the opposition feared the most. And although it seemed that it did not expect this to come – the fact that a leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the AKP’s mail rival, literally disappeared from the public life after results had been announced, may be taken as a proof of that – its nightmare became real. Turkey’s Prime Minister triumphed. And so did his family and former ministers, who previously lost their jobs because of the corruption scandal.
The following months in the Turkish politics were rather unusual. While Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kept fighting with Fethullah Gülen’s movement (tur. Hizmet), which he accused of trying to spark coup with illegal tapes, the opposition lost its vigour. Mustafa Sarıgül – one of the campaign’s brightest figures – left the main stage of political scene. Before elections he had been said to have chances of taking Istanbul from the AKP, yet after the electoral loss he was soon forgotten. Mansur Yavaş also did find himself in the public eye, as he could not accept losing the elections in Ankara (he lost by around 1%) and was accusing the AKP of election fraud. Although some agreed with him only few truly believed in the success of his crusade. Curiously enough, the opposition was not successful even in convincing the Turkish society that the government was at least partially responsible for the terrible mining disaster, which took place in the middle of May 2014 and according to official data cost the lives of 301 people. It all looked as if the CHP and the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party, the third power in the Turkish parliament) both lost faith that they would ever be able to defeat the AKP.
So the Turkish opposition got a clear signal in the local elections, did it not? The fact that the ruling party got such a huge support despite being engaged in the corruption scandal should have made the opposition leaders realize that it was not time for half-measures. A joint candidate representing all the opposition forces seemed to be the best possible solution. It was also quite obvious that this candidate had to go for a cross-country tournée in order to convince the Turks that he was worth their votes.
Nonetheless, nothing like that happened. Although the offer of a joint candidate appeared quite quickly, the MHP turned it down as soon as it was proposed. When the two parties finally agreed to cooperate, choosing the right candidate seemed to drag on indefinitely. It can be said that it was a part of their strategy. Both parties tried to do everything to create the impression that their candidate would be chosen in a democratic way (by doing this they wanted to show how much they differ from the AKP). Leaders of the opposition parties carried on some consultations with the society to talk about their preferences. The name was finally revealed on 16th of June and it was a really big shot.
Thrown to the lion?
The Turks could not believe their eyes when they learnt that it was Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu who would be an alternative to the AKP’s candidate. Some Turks were surprised mainly because they did not have a clue who that gentlemen was (according to some surveys only 30% of the constituency was familiar with his name). The fact that he had never been mentioned in the context of elections may also provide an explanation. It must be said, however, that a group being surprised the most by this choice was a secular electorate of the CHP. To be honest, one needed to have really good imagination if bet on the former Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), who, in addition, was believed to have a quite distanced view on the Turkish Republic founder Atatürk. No wonder that the decision to nominate İhsanoğlu was not popular among the CHP’s members and that voices of dissent appeared not long after his nomination. Yet division in the opposition group did not occur. As many say, İhsanoğlu was saved probably thanks to the fact that soon after his appointment he went to Anıtkabir – Father of The Turks’ mausoleum.
At first, experts did not praise this move saying that İhsanoğlu was no match for Turkey’s Prime Minister. It took them some time to realize the benefits. They understood that a candidate like that could push the conservative electorate of the AKP towards the CHP and the MHP. Another thing was that for those who used to vote for these parties a vote against Erdoğan would be enough. It was also getting quite clear that İhsanoğlu was a total antithesis of Turkey’s Prime Minister. Unlike him, İhsanoğlu used a conciliatory language, was not provocative and, in a fair-play gesture, donated 1000 TL to his opponents. Furthermore, as a campaign slogan he took ambiguous motto Ekmek İçin Ekmeleddin, which can be translated as a Ekmeleddin for bread or Ekmeleddin to sow (while Turkish word ekmek in the noun form stands for bread, as a verb it means to sow or to plant). As he later argued, the motto was to symbolize that the aim of his presidential adventure would be to “sow love, respect and solidarity in the field named Turkey”. To some extent it resembles Donald Tusk’s strategy from the 2007 parliamentary elections, does it not? However, it is doubtful that it would bring similar results in Turkey, as Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu has to face not only different obstacles, but also one of the most powerful Turkish politicians in the history.
Erdoğan’s last battle
A nomination of such a candidate by the opposition parties calmed down the spirits within the Justice and Development Party, which soon announced that the name of its candidate will be known in the early June. It seemed, however, that the decision had been made much earlier. It was somehow symbolic that a song, which accompanied the AKP during the March local elections, was a sort of “monument” for Erdoğan’s achievements. Then there was a huge debate about the position that would better suit his aspirations (prime ministerial or the presidential one). Yet as a result of Turkey’s Prime Minister’s invention as well as ambiguous statements of the current president, none of commentators of the Turkish political scene dared to make any final conclusions. When Abdullah Gül eventually declared that he was not considering re-election, everything became clear. On the 1st of July, as it had been expected, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was presented as a candidate for the presidential office. The song from local elections was heard again.
No wonder that this decision spurred a wave of dissatisfaction in the opposition camp. They demanded Erdoğan to resign arguing that the fact that he was in the office during the campaign would give him the advantage over other contenders. While watching news aired on one of the Turkish news channels one may easily realize that the name of the Prime Minister is mentioned almost all the time (the other contenders get hardly any attention). A privileged position also helps Erdoğan to sweep under the rug things that may be problematic for his cabinet. It was particularly noticeable when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (alternately the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) kidnapped Turkish citizens in Iraq. A day after Turkey’s Prime Minister accused the media of publishing provocative information on that issue, one of the courts in Ankara, as it was said in fear of the hostages’ security, banned all the publications on that subject. The opposition claimed tough that Erdoğan’s statement was nothing more than an order and tried to put into doubt – it had been doing it for some time – the Turkish courts independence. It was also questioning, in a pretty similar way, the presidential surveys, giving its candidate around 30% of votes and forecasting Turkey’s Prime Minister’s win in the first round.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not seem to worry about all these allegations. He travels all over the country announcing the beginning of the new Turkey, as nothing has happened. But what exactly all that mean for the future of Turkey’s political scene? Actually, it is not easy to say at the moment. The slogan, currently used by Erdoğan, is said to be his third vision for the country’s development. The first, according to some experts, lasted for the first two cadencies of the AKP ruling and it was characterized by rapid democratization and animation of Turkey’s European aspirations. The second is said to have begun after the 2011 elections and, as many point, was marked by the growing authoritarian tendencies of Turkey’s Prime Minister. The third one will probably be put into effect when Erdoğan becomes the president. Although, not much is known about its details yet, on the whole it can be summarized in three slogans: the new constitution, deepening democracy and giving more meaningful role of Turkey on the global stage. It is easy to see that these words would suit to parliamentary elections as well. Given all of that, it gets strikingly obvious that if Erdoğan wins, the powers would be transferred – along with the Prime Minister himself – to the president’s office.
There is a couple of subtle hints that may be helpful for drawing some cautious conclusions in terms of Turkey’s future. From the very outbreak of the corruption scandal the Prime Minister has been using the rhetoric that reminds of the one used by the Atatürk. Furthermore, Erdoğan initiated his presidential campaign in Samsun and Erzurum – cities that bring memories of the beginning of the Father of the Turks’ political career. Some catty commentators claim that in this way he wants not to follow his footsteps, but rather to erase them. They also point that one should not be deceived by this strategy, as Erdoğan has never been known for his love to the Turkish Republic’s founder. In their opinion, the interpretation recalling Atatürk’s own words is not only a clever political move, but also a try to give them a new meaning. It has to be mentioned that it is not particularly difficult to find arguments that support the argument that Erdoğan aims to reinvent Turkey according to his idea. The words about raising “a pious generation”, which he once said, seem to be a perfect example. It is also worth telling that the presidential elections may give Erdoğan a strong legitimacy to put his plans into action. Some claim it may be even stronger that the one Atatürk once had, because, unlike the Father of the Turks, it will be acquired in a democratic way. It has to be kept in mind though that Turkey’s Prime Minister has already a significant position, gained mainly thanks to his undeniable economic and political achievements giving him win six elections in the past, that will probably help him win also in the presidential contest and realize all his plans. Who knows, maybe one day he would even move a capital city to his beloved Istanbul?
Karol Wasilewski – Współpracownik CIM – Absolwent studiów pierwszego i drugiego stopnia w Instytucie Stosunków Międzynarodowych Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego (specjalizacja dyplomacja współczesna). Aktualnie student studiów I stopnia na Wydziale Orientalistycznym (kierunek turkologia) oraz studiów III stopnia na Wydziale Dziennikarstwa i Nauk Politycznych. Były prezes Koła Naukowego Notabene, były redaktor naczelny Przeglądu Spraw Międzynarodowych Notabene. Zainteresowania naukowe: stosunki międzynarodowe w regionie Bliskiego Wschodu, polityka zagraniczna Republiki Turcji, historia Imperium Osmańskiego, cyberbezpieczeństwo. Prywatnie zagorzały kibic bokserski.
- M. Makowska, (Nie)demokratyczny pakiet Erdogana
- B. Belica, Oko cyklonu w oku świata – czyli tureckie lato po arabskiej wiośnie
- K. Libront, Turcja – trudny, ważny partner Niemiec
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- W. Wolanin, Turcja – co ja jeszcze dzieli od UE
- K. Krupa, Turcja w Unii Europejskiej – Dlaczego nie?
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