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Turkey's First Direct Presidential Election: What To Watch

A masked demonstrator waves a Turkish flag during a protest in central Istanbul in late May.

Turks were at the polls on August 10 to vote in the first direct presidential election in their country's history. Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey more than 90 years ago, the president had been chosen by parliament.

Outgoing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a dominant figure in Turkish politics for over a decade, was widely expected to win the election. Erdogan has served three terms in office and is barred from running again as prime minister according to the rules of his party, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Around 55 million people were eligible to vote in the historic election, which could shift the nature of political power in Turkey if Erdogan indeed wins and fulfills his stated intention to expand the powers of the presidential office.

Weak Rivals

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is the joint candidate of the main opposition parties in parliament. But the 71-year-old -- an academic and veteran diplomat -- is relatively unknown as a political figure.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (file photo)
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (file photo)

Ihsanoglu has presented himself as a moderate, and has sought to attract youths and middle-class liberals who have become disaffected with Erdogan's stewardship of the government, which critics say has bordered on authoritarianism.

The third candidate is Selahattin Demirtas, 41-year-old Kurd who leads the left-wing People's Democratic Party. Demirtas has campaigned on a platform of diversity and is hoping to draw support from left-leaning Turks.

LATEST: Erdogan Poised To Win In First Round

Opinion polls predicted Erdogan would garner about 55 percent of the vote. Ihsanoglu was polling around 40 percent, while Demirtas was a distant third. If no candidate won more than 50 percent, then a runoff would be held on August 24.

Erdogan's Popularity Unscathed

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, says Erdogan's commanding position going into election day is due not only to his popularity but also the weak candidates he is facing.

Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas (center) with pro-Kurdish politicians at a press conference in Istanbul (file photo)
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas (center) with pro-Kurdish politicians at a press conference in Istanbul (file photo)

"Erdogan is, and remains, the most popular politician in Turkey even though he is a very polarizing figure," says Ulgen. "The candidate put forward by the main opposition is someone who has no name recognition in Turkey. They fielded him too late and he doesn't have enough time to overcome this difficulty."

Erdogan's popularity appears unscathed after large antigovernment protests and a damaging corruption scandal. Erdogan's supporters point to his success in overseeing rapid economic growth, his reconciliation effort with the banned Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), and keeping the country's powerful military out of politics.

Is Erdogan Pulling A Putin?

The election is not only about who becomes president but also how much power that president should wield.

In Turkey, the president has been a largely ceremonial role, but Erdogan has vowed to revamp the post by pressing for a change in the constitution to grant the head of state more powers. Erdogan has said he will be a strong, hands-on president if elected. He has called on the country to "make a jump" toward a U.S.-style presidential system that would give the president considerable power.

Turkish Prime Minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan's critics fears that if elected he could look to control parliament, government, and the judiciary and to consolidate power.

"Turkey could find itself with an autocratic regime in a system that is without checks and balances," columnist Ahmet Ozer wrote in the "Milliyet" newspaper. "The danger exists."

If Erdogan wins the election he would become the longest serving ruler since Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan can serve up to two five-year terms as president.

In order to make any constitutional changes to broaden the president's powers, the AKP would need to have a constitutional majority in parliament, which they do not have. That makes next year's parliamentary elections all the more significant.

"Even though Erdogan wants to change the constitution he may eventually have to work with the current constitution because his party may not get the kind of support within parliament to adopt those changes," says Ulgen.

President Abdullah Gul is seen as the likely new prime minister. Observers have speculated that Gul and Erdogan could swap roles -- much like what happened with Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Russia. When Putin was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term as president in 2008, he became prime minister and eased Medvedev into the presidency. Four years later, the two swapped roles.

Unfair Campaigning?

Erdogan's critics have accused him of using his position as prime minister to make the election lopsided.

Erdogan's rivals claim they have been given uneven air time by both state and private television and radio stations, leading Turkey's electoral authorities and media watchdogs to step in.

Turkey's Press Council has called for the resignation of the head of state broadcaster TRT for failing to give candidates equal air time. Most of the private media is owned by businessmen associated with Erdogan's party, which has rejected accusations of unfair campaigning.

Laughing Is No Joke

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, from the AKP, caused consternation when he said women should not laugh loudly in public.

"A man should be moral but women should be moral as well, they should know what is decent and what is not decent," Arinc said in a speech in early August. "Chastity is so important.... She should not laugh loudly in front of all the world and should preserve her decency at all times."

His comments have become a rallying cause for secular Turks who accuse Erdogan of showing increasingly autocratic tendencies and presiding over a creeping Islamization of Turkey. Arinc's remarks sparked a campaign on Twitter where thousands of Turkish women posted pictures of themselves laughing which went viral.

Playing The Sectarian And Ethnic Cards

Erdogan sparked a storm of controversy this week after using what critics said was an ethnic slur against Armenians.

During a live interview on the private NTV channel on August 5, Erdogan said the opposition was carrying out a smear campaign against him by suggesting that he was not ethnic Turkish. "They called me a Georgian. Pardon me for saying this, but they said even uglier things: They called me an Armenian!" Erdogan said.

His comments have drawn criticism on social media and from members of Turkey's Armenian minority.

That came after Erdogan urged Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), last week to publicly say he belongs to the country's minority Alevi community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

"Kilicdaroglu, you can be an Alevi. I respect you. Don't be afraid to say it. I am Sunni and can say it without fear. There is no need to deceive people," said Erdogan, a member of the country's Sunni majority.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.