Over the course of last week, the main actors of the political landscape that domestic and international observers will monitor up until the forthcoming presidential elections have been clarified. As expected, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was formally announced as the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) presidential candidate in a carefully choreographed ceremony that brought together thousands of past and present representatives of Turkey's largest political movement.
Erdoğan powered through a comprehensive and highly emotional speech in which he pinpointed critical junctures in his adventurous political journey. He also made references to the noble mentality and sacrifices of pioneering figures from Islamic history such as Salahaddin Ayyubi and Tarıq bin Ziyad while warning his comrades against apathy and in-fighting in the post-election period. The finale of his speech was a long and touching prayer, in tune with the Islamic-Ottoman tradition of leaders praying with their comrades before setting on major struggles. Despite harsh criticism concerning the style and visual elements of the campaign, the AK Party and its leader Erdoğan once again proved capable of creating a new electoral impetus by articulating values deeply embedded in the collective memory of Turkish society.
The capacity to merge organizational competence with participatory understanding of local values is a crucial strength that the main opposition parties desperately lack in Turkey. This fact became evident once more through the apolitical and secretive process leading to the determination of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu as the consensus candidate. As there was no firm political, social or ideological grounding for his nomination, the elite-level consensus among secular and nationalist political circles on his name created no excitement across the electorate. It looks like İhsanoğlu's colorless campaign will be marred by reluctance and domestic wrangling between the secular and ultra-secular circles of the supporting coalition and will remain a low profile affair compared to Erdoğan's potentially explosive campaign.
Comparatively, Selahaddin Demirtaş, the co-president of the Democratic Party of the People's (HDP) represents, democratically, a more vibrant candidate. Yet he is preparing to conduct a more limited campaign focused on the eastern part of the country dominated by Kurdish voters. The hope of the HDP is to become a key "balancing" actor, should the support for İhsanoğlu as the main opposition candidate against Erdoğan hover above 40 percent as their critical support is needed to carry the elections into the second round. As of now, this looks like a far-fetched expectation as opinion polls indicate that Erdoğan will be comfortably elected in the first round.
If realized, this will constitute a watershed in Turkey's political history and prepare the groundwork for a strengthened presidential office following a potential constitutional amendment after next year's general elections, A smooth transition to some form of presidential system is vital to enable effective management of Turkey's ambitious foreign and economic policies as an "emerging power" in the modern international system. Despite claims to the contrary, it is highly unlikely that Erdoğan's move to the Çankaya Villa in Ankara will trigger internal wrangling within the AK Party given his undisputed leadership reaching to the nerves of the local party organization. Instead, what will emerge is a new political framework in which Erdoğan will represent the unity and democratic legitimacy of the state vis-a-vis international actors and focus more on macro-level policy issues while he keeps the party together as a symbolic leader.
In the coming era, the prime minister will be more like a technocratic figure dealing with the daily management and detailed implementation of policy decisions as well as issues of local politics. In that sense, the personality of the next prime minister will not make a profound difference on the emerging policy framework except for his subtle nuances of style. Meanwhile, economic parameters are improving fast, with inflation expected to drop after June, which will trigger the interest rate cuts eagerly expected from the Central Bank and spur growth. This joyful summer is worth watching.