Turkey’s new president

Published 08.07.2014 00:13

The presidential race in Turkey is now in full swing and the profiles and campaign performances of the three candidates have a lot to say about the future course Turkey is likely to take with its new president.

Not surprisingly, Erdoğan is leading the race. He recently came out of a fiercely fought local election on March 30 victorious and commands over 50 percent of popular support. He is expected to win in the first round on Aug. 10 with a comfortable margin. The other two contenders are making Erdoğan's job easier.

Selahattin Demirtaş, who was nominated by his pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), has as his main goal to get Kurdish votes and the votes of urban leftists. But the polls suggest that he will have to content himself with the Peace and Democracy Party's (BDP) and the HDP's usual votes only, which amounts to about 6-7 percent since more than half of Turkey's Kurds have consistently voted for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) over the last 11 years. They are likely to vote for Erdoğan on Aug. 10 with increasing numbers because they know Demirtaş has no chance of winning with Erdoğan as their best chance to resolve the Kurdish issue and continue Turkey's political stability and economic development.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and MHP nominated Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu as their "joint candidate" with the hope that their constituencies will rally behind him against Erdoğan. But İhsanoğlu cannot deliver for two main reasons.

The first is the fact that Kemalist-secularist-nationalist alliances have been tried in the past but have never worked. Social, political and class differences between Kemalist secularists and Alevis, who support the CHP and Turkish nationalists, who support the MHP, are simply too great to be overcome in any election. After their respective losses in the March 30 elections, both parties went back home faced with angry questions about the wisdom of their failed alliance.

Many CHP supporters including CHP lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction and anger over İhsanoğlu's nomination. They see him as a typical old-fashioned right-wing figure with no appeal to their urban secularist base, Kemalists or Alevis. No matter how İhsanoğlu is presented, they see him as belonging to a different cultural and political tradition in Turkey. They are also frustrated with the fact that the CHP, which claims to be the founder of the modern Republic, was unable to nominate a candidate from its own ranks.

Finally, İhsanoğlu's self-proclaimed urban aristocracy does not appeal to either the CHP or MHP base because many see it as a reflection of İhsanoğlu's weak past with no significant political achievements, either in Turkey or as the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from 2004 to 2014. It only feeds his image as a man of high society salons.

MHP voters are likely to vote for İhsanoğlu for reasons of party loyalty – not for seeing their future in him. But some of them are already distrustful of İhsanoğlu because of his gestures towards the CHP's Kemalist secularists. As İhsanoğlu juggles between these two different and opposing constituencies, he will incur many losses from both sides.

The second reason why İhsanoğlu cannot deliver has something to do with the nature of this presidential election. This is the first time Turkey's president will be elected through a popular vote. Counterintuitively, the CHP and MHP nominated a figure ages away from having the profile of "the people's president" in an election where ordinary voters will make the final call. İhsanoğlu has no record to show that he can work for the people who will vote for him. Furthermore, his upper-class appearance works against his favor because it makes him look even further removed from the people.

All these factors increase Erdoğan's chances to win. With his record of the past 12 years of political stability and economic development behind him, he is comfortable at election rallies. His promise of a hands-on, active president fits his profile as a strong prime minister. This creates a sense of realness for his presidential bid.

This profile appeals to the majority of Turkish voters who will go to the polls on August 10. The voters who are likely to vote for Erdoğan cut across Turkish society including urban residents, rural workers, blue and white collar-workers, professionals, entrepreneurs, men, women, young, old, religious and non-religious citizens and others.

The vast majority of these ordinary citizens never had a voice in Turkish politics before. They see Erdoğan as the one to give them voice and thus stand behind him. This is not rhetoric but a real fact that creates a very strong bond between Erdoğan and his supporters, which is lost to many analysts, hence their puzzlement over Erdoğan's successive electoral victories.

As Erdoğan expands his campaign to Turkey's major cities, this bond is certain to get stronger and hand him another victory on Aug. 10.

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