The upcoming ascension of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to his country’s highest state office marks an historic turning point for modern Turkey. Looking back decades from now, historians might say this presidential election was the beginning of a new era.
It’s almost certain that Mr. Erdogan will be elected president. The only question is whether he will receive a majority of votes on Sunday or be forced into a run-off two weeks later.
This is the first time in the 91-year history of the Turkish Republic that citizens will directly choose their president, not Parliament. Mr. Erdogan sees it as a popular mandate and won’t settle for serving only as ceremonial head of state, which the presidency in Turkey has been up to now. What’s more, he plans constitutional changes that would give the president new far-ranging powers.
The prime minister, now in his third term and unable to seek a fourth, lacks a majority in Parliament for such a radical change to the constitution. But he could use the victory in the presidential election to call quickly for new parliamentary elections and consolidate his power.
Mr. Erdogan has already governed Turkey for 11 and a half years – longer than any prime minister since the beginning of the multi-party era in 1946. Since the days of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state, no other politician has made such a mark on the country. With the presidency and planned constitutional changes, Mr. Erdogan would wield the kind of power held only before by the “Father of the Turks” himself.
But Mr. Erdogan can be a polarizing leader.
Erdogan has presided in an increasingly authoritarian manner and pushed forward with Islamization of both state and society
On one hand, he made democratic reforms and opened the way for Turkey to negotiate entrance to the European Union. He reduced the influence of the military, which had overthrown legitimately elected governments four times since 1960.
At the same time, Mr. Erdogan has presided in an increasingly authoritarian manner and pushed forward with Islamization of both state and society. While many of his Muslim supporters revere him as the “second Prophet,” opponents fear that as president, he could become a despot. It is alarming, in fact, to hear Mr. Erdogan cite the power structures of Russia and China as patterns for his own presidential model.
Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey is a deeply divided country. This especially concerns business leaders because a country torn by such divisions can’t succeed economically. Investors require political stability. This includes separation of powers, as well as tolerance toward minorities and those who hold different views – a democratic virtue that Mr. Erdogan has not internalized.
In foreign policy as well, what is claimed and what is real lie far apart. The motto of Mr. Erdogan’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu – “no problems with our neighbors” – has proved an illusion. Long-standing conflicts with Armenia, Greece and Cyprus remain unresolved, while new ones have arisen – with Egypt, Syria, Israel and Iraq.
Mr. Erdogan’s vision of Turkey as a leading power in the Middle East has remained a mirage. He has led his country off course with his diatribes against Israel and unspeakable comparisons with Hitler. Turkey is farther away from joining the European Union than it was when negotiations began.
Turkey could serve NATO and Europe as an anchor of stability in an increasingly turbulent region. Instead, Mr. Erdogan has turned to cheap, nationalistic demagoguery and allowed himself to be revered as “leader of the world” and “great master.”
No one can keep him from ascending to the highest state office. But history will judge Mr. Erdogan not by how many votes he receives in the presidential election, but by what he does with the office. Will he polarize further? Will he continue to demonize political opponents as enemies of the state, and to brand critics as criminals?
Or will he build bridges across the divides he has created? Will he unify his split nation and lead it back to the path of European integration?
That is Mr. Erdogan’s greatest challenge – and also his historic opportunity.
Gerd Höhler is a correspondent in Athens for Handelsblatt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org