ISTANBUL – For the first time in its history, Turkey is directly electing its president Sunday in a contest considered a turning point for the country of 76 million people – with its prime minister the strong favorite for a job he has pledged to transform from a symbolic role into one of real power.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s dominant politician over the past decade, is seen by many as aiming to solidify his grip on power after serving three consecutive terms as prime minister at the head of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party. An absolute majority is needed to avoid a runoff Aug. 24.
The 60-year-old Erdogan is revered by many as a man of the people who ushered in a period of prosperity, reviled by others as an increasingly autocratic leader trying to impose his religious and conservative views on a country with strong secular traditions.
“This is a critical juncture for democratization,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, political science professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. “We are not only voting for one guy over another. We’re voting for whether Turkey is going to be authoritarian versus whether Turkey is going to improve on its democratic record.”
If Erdogan wins, many fear he will appoint a pliant prime minister he can control – and concentrate all true power in his own hands.
Erdogan’s two challengers are Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old academic who enjoys the support of nearly a dozen opposition parties, including the main republican and nationalist parties; and Selahattin Demirtas, 41, a Kurd who heads a left-leaning party and already has made a name for himself on the minority Kurdish political scene.
A religious man who supports Turkey’s deep traditions of secularism, Ihsanoglu headed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for a decade until this year. In contrast to Erdogan’s divisive, often abrasive campaign, he has run on a platform of unity and has promised not to engage in party politics.
Demirtas is expected to trail in third place, but could be instrumental in potentially leading the election to a second round by attracting part of the Kurdish vote away from Erdogan.