By November 2019, Turkey will hold one of its most consequential elections: a vote to choose its first executive president. Up until 2014, Turkey's parliament appointed the country's presidents, who served largely in an emeritus capacity as paternalistic figures representing the integrity of the state. The system changed with a series of constitutional amendments spearheaded by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that allowed for direct elections in the future. Erdogan then succeeded President Abdullah Gul to become Turkey's first popularly elected president in August 2014. At the time of his election, constitutional scholars highlighted concerns that having a popularly elected prime minister and a popularly elected president could give rise to an executive duality. If both the head of the constitutionally defined executive — the prime minister — and the head of state are popularly elected, who runs Turkey?
Erdogan had a clear answer. In April 2017, Turkey held a referendum that the president had proposed and promoted on a sweeping number of constitutional changes. Among the amendments up for approval was a provision to transition the country's government from a parliamentary democracy, which it had been since the republic's founding in 1923, to what some have called an "executive presidency." The office of prime minister would be abolished under the new system and all executive power transferred to the presidency. The president would also gain the authority to enact laws directly through decree (though parliament would continue legislating), immunity from virtually all forms of judicial oversight and vast powers to appoint judges to much of the judicial hierarchy, including the Constitutional Court and courts of appeal. In what proved to be a highly contentious process of electioneering — the result of which has been disputed — 51 percent of voters narrowly passed the change to Turkey's political system. The new executive presidency model will come into operation for the most part after the next parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 2019.
Critics, both domestic and international, suggest that the transition will spell the end of democratic governance in Turkey and turn the country into an authoritarian, if not autocratic, state. But one critical question remains at this point: Who will be Turkey's first executive president?
A Tough Race
In the minds of a vast majority of Turkey specialists, little doubt exists that voters will re-elect Erdogan to formally and legally carry out the powers of the executive presidency. The president, in fact, already has exercised most of the new prerogatives afforded by the transition, since after the aborted coup of July 2016, he imposed a state of emergency that he has yet to lift. The odds are in Erdogan's favor. The state of emergency has given the president unprecedented opportunities not only to go after those suspected of plotting the coup but also to suppress dissent and opposition at all levels. Hundreds and thousands of civil servants, military personnel, academics and journalists have been dismissed from their jobs or imprisoned. The decrees the president has issued over the course of state-of-emergency rule have sent a clear signal to all parts of Turkey that resisting Erdogan in any meaningful sense may well have dire consequences. Adding to the restrictive political environment are the Turkish broadcast media. It's extremely difficult for other contestants for the presidency to get impartial coverage in the media because most outlets have become Erdogan friendly.
In other words, the odds are low that Turkey's next presidential election will be free or fair. The process of winning the election is mathematically simple: A candidate needs a simple majority of 51 percent of the vote to win. If no one attains this share in the first round of the vote, the two contenders with the highest percentages of vote proceed to a runoff election. And unlike in previous elections, independent election monitors won't keep an eye on the ballot boxes during the next vote. Instead, civil servants will monitor the voting process, in accordance with legislation that Erdogan recently put in place.
Given these adverse factors, who will run against Erdogan? We can predict with relative certainty that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), will be a candidate. Meral Aksener, the chairwoman of the newly established nationalist Good Party — composed largely of dissidents and former members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — probably will throw her hat into the ring, too. The MHP and the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), on the other hand, are unlikely to field candidates; the MHP's leader has long since thrown his support, and that of his party, behind Erdogan, while most of the HDP's leaders are in prison awaiting trial.
The odds are low that Turkey's next presidential election will be free or fair.
Neither Kilicdaroglu nor Aksener poses much of a threat to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Though the CHP chairman has a solid support base, he doesn't resonate with most Turkish voters who are looking to elect someone other than Erdogan to the presidency. Aksener, likewise, lacks a national following, despite having established a new nationalist party after a schism in the MHP, and struggles to attract voters who aren't focused solely on nationalist issues. Both candidates, moreover, lack the gravitas of Erdogan, to say nothing of the benefits of his incumbency.
A Credible Challenger
The only remaining candidate who could perhaps cast doubt on the incumbent's re-election, should he choose to run, is Gul, whom Erdogan succeeded in office. A founding member of the AKP who also has served his country previously as prime minister and foreign minister, Gul commands considerable respect on the world stage — unlike Erdogan, once a close confidant. (The two leaders fell out in 2014 following the end of Gul's term as president.) In the event that he does run, Gul may have the requisite charisma to sway voters who are looking for an alternative to Erdogan but who don't align with Kilicdaroglu or Aksener. The former president has clearly indicated his dismay at the direction in which Erdogan is taking Turkey, and speculation has ramped up this year that he is testing the political waters to assess his chances of winning the election.
In all likelihood, however, Gul won't run against Erdogan. Although his supporters are adamant that he should make another bid for office, he lacks the institutional and financial backing to do so. Defeating Erdogan, after all, would require a substantial amount of cash and media attention. Gul has secured neither. Erdogan, by contrast, enjoys the vast financial support of Turkey's private sector and media outlets. He also has mobilized all the state's resources to ensure that the chips fall in his favor, revising election-monitoring procedures and enlisting the help of the Supreme Electoral Council. Furthermore, challenging Erdogan could put Gul, and his family, in danger. Even without having declared his candidacy, Gul has come under attack from media outlets loyal to the current president, and from Erdogan himself. Under ordinary circumstances, having a strong international standing could elevate a politician's standing in Turkey. But these are not ordinary times. Gul's detractors have used the esteem he carries among leaders in Europe and the United States to cast him as a stooge of the foreign actors and interests that, according to Erdogan and the AKP, are trying to undermine Turkey and its government.
Ultimately, it's up to the current president to decide how the next election plays out. He alone will decide the date of the presidential and parliamentary elections. Lest he wind up in a runoff against a candidate like Gul, he will be sure to schedule the votes for when he believes he is most likely to win a simple majority in the first round. And so, barring external factors, Erdogan will be Turkey's first executive president.