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On 10 August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan achieved his ambition to become Turkey’s twelfth president, winning just under 52 percent of the vote, after more than a decade in power as prime minister.
In spite of the Gezi protests in May-June 2013, allegations of corruption against Erdoğan, his family, and members of his government—as well as a bitter power struggle between the government and the followers of Pennsylvania-based religious leader Fethullah Gülen—the opposition proved unable to stop Erdoğan’s march to the Presidency. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, the candidate fielded jointly by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the right-wing National Movement Party (MHP), garnered only 38.4 percent of the vote. Selahattin Demirtaș, representing the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), won just under 10 percent of the vote, which was a strong result, at the national level, for a politician associated with the Kurdish movement.
There had been speculation that the outgoing head of state, the mild-mannered Abdullah Gül, would return, at the end of his presidential term, to active politics in the party he had cofounded. Erdoğan, however, scheduled the AK Party congress a day before Gül’s mandate ended, thus making it impossible for the incumbent president to join the leadership race. Instead, party delegates elected the candidate designated by Erdoğan, Turkey’s ambitious foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was asked to form the next government after Erdoğan’s inauguration as head of state on 28 August 2014.
Before the election, Erdoğan had stated clearly that he did not intend to limit himself to the largely ceremonial role played by his predecessors. His focus is now on the general elections, to be held by June 2015. To change the constitution and officially grant the Presidency the executive powers Erdoğan seeks, the government will need the backing of at least two-thirds of the members of the next parliament.
In the meantime, the new president is already pushing traditional boundaries. Signaling a break from the past in a “new Turkey…reborn from its ashes”, he has declared his intention to leave the Çankaya presidential palace, which was first occupied by Atatürk, and move to a vast complex currently under construction.
Prime Minister Davutoğlu
His style may be less confrontational, but Prime Minister Davutoğlu has expressed his loyalty to Erdoğan, and he shares his conservative and religious views. A new Internet law was passed, which allows the authorities to collect user data and block Web sites without a court order, suggesting that the Turkish government will remain tough on dissent.
In its “restoration” program, the government also signaled that it would continue its fight against the “parallel state”, that is, the Gülen movement. The decision to leave the economy safely in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and Finance Minister Mehmet Şimșek brought relief to the markets. In recent months, Erdoğan has put pressure on the Central Bank to lower interest rates in order to boost growth, despite rising inflation. Davutoğlu also declared his intention to push ahead with efforts to solve the Kurdish question and to resume accession talks with the EU, which have been on the back burner in recent years. With discontent at home over his attempts to impose more conservative and religious mores, serious foreign policy challenges in Syria and Iraq, and an economy showing signs of slowing, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu faces difficult tests before the 2015 parliamentary elections. Not least will be defining his own role and balancing his relationship with the authoritarian president. His standing boosted by the popular vote, President Erdoğan remains the dominant figure on the political scene. Praised by some, reviled by others, Turkey’s new head of state—far from being the uniting figure above politics that the current constitution envisages—is a divisive figure, presiding over a polarized society.