Turkish voters hand Erdogan the presidency

By bne IntelliNews August 11, 2014

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -


Turkish voters went to the polls on August 10 to elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan the country's twelfth president. Victory was widely expected, but although he avoided a run-off, the current prime minister took less of the vote than forecast.

Erdogan won 51.8% of what was Turkey's first ever direct election for the presidency. That was enough to beat off opposition candidates Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu - standing as a candidate for the two main opposition parties - and Selahattin Demirtas, standing for the mainly Kurdish People's Democracy Party.

With over 50% of the vote, Erdogan won the election outright, removing the need for a run off on August 24th. However, his margin of victory was lower than that suggested by opinion polls, which had indicated Erdogan would take as much as 57%. Analysts suggest the low turnout - just 73% of Turkey's 56m voters cast their ballot - is likely behind the drop.

Erdogan will take over from the incumbent, Abdullah Gul, on August 28th and will serve a five year term. Having indicated on numerous occasions that he intends to be an "active" president and wants constitutional changes to give the presidency greater powers, many were expecting Erdogan's victory speech to see him lay out a route map for his presidency.

In the event, addressing his supporters from a balcony in Ankara, Erdogan offered a more conciliatory tone. "Today we are closing an old and opening a new era," he said, calling on Turks to leave behind the "old Turkey" and "the politics of polarisation and divisiveness".

How serious the PM is on that score, given his central role in the mass unrest and political scandals of the last 18 months or so, remains to be seen. Observers noted that while his speech was simultaneously translated into English and Arabic, it was offered in any of the Kurdish dialects spoken by between 10-15m Turks.

Erdogan also declared his win a victory not only for Turks, but also for the citizens of neighbouring, predominantly Muslim, countries. "Today, not only Turkey, but Beirut, Sarajevo, Skopje, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem are the winners of this election," he claimed, echoing a tone set during the election campaign, in which events in Gaza and Iraq often appeared to be of more significance to candidates than domestic Turkish politics.

No laughing matter

A campaign in which reconciliation and celebration of Turkey's political, ethnic and religious diversity had often seemed far from the agenda.

Only two before the poll, deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc declared that women who laugh in public are "unchaste". Erdogan meanwhile offered off-colour comments about the ethnicity of more than one opposition figure. Even more oddly, the PM launched repeated attacks on Economist correspondent and popular Turkish columnist Amberin Zaman, labelling her "a shameless militant woman disguised under the name of a journalist."

Given the apparent certainty of victory, the need for such rhetoric from the Erdogan camp is unclear. According to some, it was in part an attempt to rally Turkey's more nationalist voters  in an effort to prevent a low turnout as occurred in the early polling of the 2.8 million Turks resident abroad, only 8% of whom bothered to vote.

Others question whether Erdogan's intentions were as divisive as has been claimed. "In fact he hasn't changed his position or his attitude," says Oral Calislar, a columnist for the left-wing Turkish daily Radikal, pointing out that his comments on ethnic and religious minorities have been widely misinterpreted. "He was actually trying to say something positive about ethnic diversity, but he just doesn't have the ability to explain himself well, " he suggests, adding though that Erdogan's attack on Zaman was unacceptable.

With the final result closer than expected, Erdogan's victory has been followed by numerous claims of electoral malpractice, albeit fewer than asserted in local elections in March. At that time, power cuts at polling stations interrupted vote counting and led to allegations of manipulation. This time out Turkey's energy regulator EPDK warned power distributors to postpone maintenance work and maintain full staffing levels to deal with unplanned outages.

Ahead of the election, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) questioned why 18m extra ballot papers were printed, and warned of other problems. "There is no clear separation between government activities and election campaigning on the side of the government," said Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens of the Limited Election Observation Mission (LEOM), pointing to the recent opening of the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed rail line as a government activity being used to promote Erdogan's campaign.

It's a criticism that has been echoed by the opposition candidates, with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu describing the election code adopted for the polls as "absurd". "It paves the way for the ruling party to use public funds to support its campaign. This would not happen even in third world countries," he said.

An Erdogan presidency

However, arguments over the election are par for the course. Many are instead already looking ahead to what an Erdogan presidency will mean for the economy. 

"An Erdogan victory has already been priced in by the markets so it should have little impact, " says Inan Demir, chief economist at Turkey's Finansbank, explaining that the big question is who will replace Erdogan as prime minister and what sort of cabinet he will preside over; questions which won't be answered until after August 28, when Erdogan would be sworn in.

Although President Abdullah Gul has been mentioned as a possible candidate to return to the post, Demir points out that such a move would require a by-election, which would require Erdogan's assent. "It would require his cooperation, and I'm not sure that cooperation is there," says Demir.

More likely candidates, he suggests, are Erdogan loyalists such as former deputy PM and speaker Mehmet Ali Sahin, former transport minister Binali Yildirim or Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "Given the extent to which Erdogan regards foreign policy as being as important as domestic policy, perhaps Davutoglu is the obvious choice," he suggests.

Another key question is how the new government will deal with the central bank, which has been repeatedly criticised by Erdogan for not reducing interest rates as fast as he would like.

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