COMMENT

Turkey heads into uncharted waters

By Nikos Konstandaras

Recep Tayip Erdogan easily achieved his wish to become the first directly elected president of Turkey. Although he has already dominated Turkish politics for over a decade, and was elected prime minister three times, he portrayed Sunday’s victory as Turkey’s renaissance. “Today is the day Turkey is born from its ashes and a new Turkey is built,” he declared. This was a direct challenge to the legacy of Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic as a secular state out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Whatever the outcome of this rebirth, it is certain that Turkey is headed for uncharted waters in its politics, in society and in its relations with the world.

By August 28, when he will succeed Abdullah Gul in the presidency, Erdogan must resign from the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and from the post of prime minister. The party will elect its new leader (who will also become prime minister) on August 27. Gul, one of the AKP’s founders, announced yesterday that he is returning to the party, without saying whether he would seek its leadership. National elections are due in June 2015, so the choice of a new party leader is of paramount importance – with regard both to his appeal to voters and his relationship with the new president.

This is where the major questions lie: How will today’s political system function with a dynamic president following Erdogan’s past failure to change it from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential democracy? How will the president regard the other institutions – such as the judiciary, the security forces, the central bank and the news media? Until now, Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, his increasingly Islamist agenda and the many claims of his involvement in corruption scandals have not cost him votes. As president, when he is no longer a member of the AKP but is identified with it, will the party pay the political price if he continues to clash with institutions? If Erdogan pushes for the constitution to be changed, will this enshrine the necessary checks and balances? So far Erdogan has not welcomed such “obstacles” in his path. Constitutional amendments demand at least 367 votes in the 550-member national assembly. Today the AKP has 313 seats. Will its new leader be able to gain more votes than Erdogan did, or will the new (supposedly neutral) president of the republic campaign in favor of the AKP? In every case, the political system will be severely strained.

In recent years, Ankara has pursued a greater role in the region, with a sometimes mercurial strategy. Turkey’s clash with Israel and strong support for the Palestinians, along with closer ties with China and Russia, have raised concerns in the United States and NATO. The uncontrolled situation in Syria and Iraq, and the strengthening of what is a de facto Kurdish state in Iraq, raise serious problems for Turkey. Will the new president be able to achieve domestic unity so as to lead his country through the flames?

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