Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

RTE and Turkey’s presidency

After protesting time and again his lack of political ambition, Turkey’s Erdogan is playing hard to arrive to the presidency, taking his present powers with him, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid from Ankara

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Al-Ahram Weekly

After long leaving it to his followers and disciples to make hints and float balloons, the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) finally broke its silence. Turkey’s ruling party would back its leader, Recep Tayip Erdogan (RTE), for president.

In a scene much more familiar to dictatorships than to the European democracies that RTE ostensibly wants his country to join, RTE made out that he had been reluctant to seek that high office but felt that he had to bow to the overwhelming wishes of the people. Moreover, in keeping with his trademark modesty, he vowed that he would do all in his power to ensure that that office would not be a purely honourary or symbolic one, as long as he was in it. The president had to work day and night, he proclaimed in his recent meeting with JDP MPs who showered him with applause, belted out party slogans and hailed RTE as the country’s saviour and protector. Indeed, in JDP corridors the plan is to ensure that RTE has the requisite powers by transferring the presidency’s honourary and symbolic characteristics to the prime minister, who will accordingly be reduced to a senior employee in the RTE palace.

It is impossible to count how many times the prime minister has protested his lack of ambition for political power and the endless strains that come with it. Also, did he not vow that he would withdraw from political life altogether if his party did not sweep the municipal elections that took place on 30 March? Surely only a hardened cynic would suggest that RTE would never have made such a vow if he had not been certain that the outcome of those polls would come out as he wished and in ways that, unfortunately, were no joke.

The fact is that RTE is as power hungry a politician as they come, and he has long had his eye on the president’s seat. In a televised interview in July 2010, President Abdullah Gül’s political advisor, Ersat Hürmüzlü, stated that Gül would have no objection to stepping aside to make way for his friend Erdogan. That statement was issued against the backdrop of the controversy stirred by the JDP’s plans to pave the way for its leader’s entrance into the presidential palace in autumn 2012. That year was Gül’s fifth year in office and it was originally supposed to have been his last in accordance with the constitutional amendments that the JDP had sponsored for that purpose.

What they did not expect was the bolt from the blue that would hail from the Supreme Constitutional Court. Had the party and its leader foreseen that scenario they would not have been in such a haste to change a number of provisions in the 1982 constitution in order to tailor them to RTE’s designs. Suddenly, and without forewarning, the court ruled that the constitutional amendment would not affect Gül’s current term, which would therefore remain seven years: that was the basis on which he had been elected in 2007, as had been the case with his predecessor Ahmet Necdet Sezer (2000-2007). On top of this, the court ruled that now Gül would have the right to run for a second term — five years this time — in accordance with the amendments that he had never sought to begin with.

Such were the mysterious workings of fate. Not that RTE would let such matters stand in his way. Quickly rallying from the blow, he challenged his previously declared conviction that no leader — whether MP or political chief — should serve more than two terms. Accordingly, JDP bylaws were modified to give him three terms as its leader and this third term comes to an end this year, just in time for the presidential marathon. Now he must be crossing his fingers that his long-term companion on the road will remain compliant and accept a swap, with Gül becoming prime minister so as to keep the presidential throne open for RTE.

But why should RTE be so worried? The answer to this question resides in the answer to another: If the plans he had his heart set on all these years do not pan out, what will he do? His three terms as party chief are over and there is no sign that his tenure can be extended. Surely he cannot retire from public life after all that work? More importantly, how can the Republic of Turkey possibly celebrate its centennial in 2023 without him in the driver’s seat? Is RTE the type to go gracefully, pen his memoirs and leave that seat as a prize for one of his adversaries? Or is he the type to bring down the temple on all inside?

 At present, the political scene is cloudy, judging by news that appeared unfavourable to JDP decision-makers Friday. Above all, media advisor to the president Ahmet Sefer denied reports in the press that President Gül had struck a deal with RTE in a recent meeting over which of them would run for president on 10 August. These will be Turkey’s first direct presidential elections. Sefer said that all the scenarios published in the domestic media “do not reflect the truth of the situation,” but he added that Gül and Erdogan would be meeting again soon.

Friday’s Milliyet reported that a number of observers, whom the newspaper did not name, believed that the media advisor’s denial was an indication that Gül may be eying a second term, contrary to the general impression in Turkey. To make the situation cloudier yet, President Gül has openly stated that he rejected the Russian “Putin-Medvedev power-swapping formula” for him and Erdogan. Such an arrangement was “undemocratic” he said during a visit Friday to the Aegean city of Kütahya. The secularist opposition press interpreted Gül’s statement as an act of defiance against RTE. In the opinion of Hürriyet, Gül does not want to see a role-swapping game in which he becomes a cardboard prime minister taking instructions from RTE. Which is, after all, the play RTE is preparing.

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