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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Turkey Ready for First Direct Presidential Poll

by Dorian Jones August 09, 2014

Saturday was the last day of campaigning by candidates in Turkey's first directly elected presidential vote. Opinion polls say Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan is enjoying a commanding lead, but concerns have been growing over an increasingly acrimonious campaign.

Even in an opponent's stronghold in Istanbul, supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presidential bid are campaigning hard in the final hours of Turkey's election, the first time the country will choose its president by direct popular vote.

Erdogan's campaign, backed by his ruling AK Party, has massively outspent his two rivals, and the prime minister's supporters are widely seen as well organized and well financed across the country.

Erdogan promises he will represent Turkey's 'national will" when he becomes president. Political analyst Atilla Yesilada, of Global Source Partners, says an Erdogan administration is likely to be very different than the presidential role that Turks are accustomed to.

'It appears to me a new blueprint is being crafted, [with] almost all the major policy decisions of Turkey being taken in the presidential palace by Erdogan,' said Yesilada.

The prime minister contends that a directly elected president has a mandate to exert more power. According to the constitution, Turkey's president is the head of state but parliament hold the country's real political power.

In contrast to Erdogan, his rivals, Selahattin Demirtas and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, are campaigning against 'authoritarianism' and promising they will not make significant changes in the country's balance of power.

Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels says Erdogan certainly is the focus of the election:

'It's going to be about personalities, because the popular vote will not really take into account this difference between executive presidency versus parliamentary system. This is a debate restricted [to] the elite level,' said Ulgen. 'But, I think, fundamentally, for the people who are going out to vote on August 10th, it's really going to be about do they want to see Erdogan there or not.'

Ahead of the vote, Erdogan has suffered a series of setbacks this year and last. A wave of anti-government protests was followed by major corruption allegations implicating the prime minister's family, and earlier this year, his government's handling of a mine disaster prompted sharp protests.

But observers say a combination of easily manipulated media and a decade of unprecedented economic growth - a boom that transformed Turkey from 'the sick man of Europe' to a regional power - has kept the loyalty of his base of conservative, religious voters. Most opinion polls predict Erdogan will easily secure an absolute majority.

The prime minister's fortunes have been boosted by difficulties facing by his chief rival, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The center-left Republican People's Party selected the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation as its candidate in the hope that his religious background would win over some traditional supporters of the prime minister.

But analyst Ulgen says that move may have backfired.

'It really hinges on whether [Ihsanoglu] gets full support from the CHP (Republican People's Party) constituency,' said Ulgen. 'And, looking at the reaction from within the CHP, that is not very likely to happen. We may see a split within the party because of the conservative background of the candidate.'

Experts say many CHP supporters could boycott the vote. However, Ihsanoglu also is backed by the right-wing National Action Party.

As the campaign drew to a close, Erdogan stepped up his rhetoric against Ihsanoglu - attacking his opponent's nationalist credentials and claiming he did not even know the national anthem's lyrics.

The prime minister has also turned his fire on the media. Erdogan's public criticism prompted the resignation of the editor of one of Turkey's few remaining critical mainstream newspapers.

Erdogan has called into question his opponents' professed religious backgrounds and their supposed appeal to varied ethnic groups.

With the prime minister promising strong partisanship in his presidency, political analysts and observers expect that Turkey's deep political polarization will only intensify.

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