Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is almost certain to win his country’s first direct presidential election on Sunday. A victory for Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for more than a decade, would likely reinforce the NATO member state’s Islamization and exasperate opponents who have proven unable to thwart what they perceive as a drift toward authoritarianism.
Erdoğan, who has won every Turkish election for his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002, promises to exercise the full powers granted to him if he is elected president — unlike his predecessors who were appointed by parliament and played a largely ceremonial role.
The current constitution, which was written under military rule after a 1980 coup, would enable him to appoint the prime minister as well as top judges and chair cabinet meetings. An election victory could also embolden Erdoğan to push for constitutional changes in order to expand the powers of the presidency further.
Opponents of Erdoğan’s government worry that such a move would allow the Turkish leader to manipulate the country’s democratic institutions and suppress dissent.
Erdoğan has recently been battered by graft accusations he claims were fabricated by supporters of a former ally, the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States. Numerous tapes of telephone conversations posted online suggest Erdoğan himself was involved in corruption. The premier calls these “montages” and claims foreigners are attempting to undermine his “new Turkey.” He has purged thousands of police officers as well as hundreds of judges and prosecutors who were involved in corruption investigations against members of his cabinet.
The AKP nevertheless won the local elections in March when it got almost 43 percent support nationwide. But the elections were overshadowed by a government ban on social media and voting irregularities, including power outages in provinces where the party was struggling to hold on to seats and claims from opposition newspapers that they had come under cyber attack during election night.
The crowdsourced consulting company Wikistrat warns in a report (PDF) it released shortly before Sunday’s election that Turkish politics could see more conflict and polarization if Erdoğan interprets his victory as a mandate to marginalize and eliminate his opponents. “If the opposition fails to present a formidable challenge, Wikistrat’s analysts assessed that Erdoğan will crush them and establish his power,” it reports. “If, on the other hand, the opposition manages to present a unified front, Erdoğan will need to make concessions and seek reconciliation in order to accomplish much of anything.”
The country’s two largest opposition parties — the secular Republican People’s Party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party — did jointly nominate a presidential candidate: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, an academic and former diplomat who lead the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for ten years before stepping down in January. But his nomination itself marks a surrender of Turkey’s secularists, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook and Middle East expert Michael Koplow.
Highlighting Ihsanoğlu’s religious credentials, including his extensive study of Islamic culture and thought, the two write at the Ottomans and Zionists blog, “That Turks are being offered a choice between two religious candidates should be the final death knell for the meme that Turkey is a state being pulled apart by a battle between Islam and secularism.” They add, “The truth is that religion won out a long time ago and the fundamental divides in Turkish politics and society are organized around different fault lines” — such as economic inequality, the role of the state, Turkey’s place in the West and its treatment of minorities.
Cook and Koplow cite a 2012 Pew survey of Muslim opinion worldwide (PDF) — which found that religion is an import part of life for 67 percent of Turks and 44 percent attend mosque at least once per week — to argue that Islam in Turkey is “ingrained in a way that elides a meaningful religious-secular distinction.”
Erdoğan’s particular blend of Islamism and Turkish nationalism is what appeals to this majority of pious and — due in no small part to the economic liberalism of his early years — bourgeois voters who will no longer let a secular city elite dictate what it means to be Turkish.
The author is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.