COMMENT: Erdogan’s choice

By bne IntelliNews July 4, 2014

Marcus Svedberg of East Capital -



Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement that he would run for president in Turkey hardly came as a surprise. And no one will be surprised if he wins the election in August; analysts and pollsters are arguing over whether he will win in the first or second round. The more interesting question is in what direction he will take Turkey as president. The first indication of his ambitions will be his choice of prime minister.

Erdogan came under fierce criticism over the past year. His handling of the street protests last summer was strongly criticized at home and abroad for being inappropriately hard. The treatment of protesters – and people, companies and institutions that defended the right to protest – only served to underscore the authoritarian charges mounted against Erdogan and parts of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Then a series of corruption allegations put Erdogan and several of his ministers under pressure during the winter. Nevertheless, the AKP won the local election at the end of March by a comfortable margin, partly because Erdogan turned the vote into a referendum on himself. This illustrates clearly that the prime minister is still very popular and the opposition remains weak and divided. It also gives a clear indication of what will happen in the presidential election.

The AKP has not managed to change the constitution to turn Turkey into an executive presidency, but Erdogan will nevertheless be a more powerful president than his predecessors. That is because he will be the first popularly elected president in Turkey, boosting the legitimacy of the office. Still, there is a degree of ambiguity in the current constitution as to the exact powers of the presidency. Therefore, the precise division of labour and power between the president and the prime minister may boil down to personalities. Will Erdogan and the AKP, which has a comfortable majority in parliament, choose a strong prime minister with his or her own power base, or more of a puppet? This is not only a question for the chattering classes in Ankara and Istanbul, but also one that is likely to determine where Turkey is heading in the medium term. Put differently, will Turkey follow in the footsteps of Russia or Poland?

In Russia, Putin is the most powerful politician regardless of whether he is prime minister or president. He has chosen weak prime ministers and even swapped places with Dmitry Medvedev, but still remained the unquestionable number one. The person matters more than the institution in Russia. The opposite is true in Poland, where the president is popularly elected and has executive authority, but nevertheless has a more ceremonial role – very much like the current president in Turkey – regardless of who is prime minister. It would obviously be good if Turkey follows Poland rather than Russia in this regard. The liberal democracy in Poland with a clear separation of power is arguably more sustainable and stable in the longer term. 

Marcus Svedberg is Chief Economist of East Capital

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