Between Sultan and Ataturk: Erdogan Wins Turkey’s Presidential Race

ANKARA (A.W.)—On Aug. 10, the Republic of Turkey held direct presidential elections for the first time in its 91-year history, won by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Previously, incumbent Abdullah Gul and his ten predecessors had all been elected by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly. The change to a direct vote came after a push by Erdogan, who was also the front-runner coming into the election.

 For the first time in its 91-year history, the Republic of Turkey held direct presidential elections, won by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian, The Armenian Weekly)
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the country’s first direct presidential election on Aug. 10 (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian, The Armenian Weekly)

Erdogan and his right-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) were running against independent Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtas of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). A former professor and Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Ihsanoglu was nominated by Turkey’s two largest opposition parties, with the idea of drawing some religious voters from Erdogan. Demirtas, the Kurdish candidate, sought to unite mostly left-leaning groups such as the LGBT community and environmentalists, in addition to Kurds. At just 41 years of age, Demirtas is sometimes referred to by his supporters as the “Kurdish Obama,” especially when compared to the 60-year old Erdogan and the 70 year-old Ihsanoglu. Demirtas is known for his recognition of the Armenian Genocide, whereas Erdogan recently referred to being called “Armenian” as an insult.

Erdogan, who as Prime Minister oversaw massive economic growth over the last 10 years, led opinion polling throughout the campaign, and raised eight times more money than the other two candidates combined. His campaign is alleged to have abused governmental power, such as the distribution of free coal to the residents of Izmir, and the comparatively little air time given to Messrs. Ihsanoglu and Demirtas on state-run television. On Election Day, Erdogan took just under 52 percent of the vote, with Ihsanoglu collecting over 38 percent, and Demirtas the remaining percentage, just under 10 percent.

Demirtas predictably led in Kurd-dominated Eastern Turkey, particularly in areas along the borders with Iraq and Iran. Ihsanoglu won the vote in most Western districts, mostly along the Mediterranean Sea. The AKP and Erdogan carried the rest of the country. It is worth noting that Demirtas’ performance, although garnering only a tenth of the vote, was significant. His party trebled its vote percentages in Ankara, while doubling it in Istanbul and Izmir, per The Economist.

The role of the President in Turkey is somewhat symbolic, although Erdogan has indicated he wants to strengthen the position, potentially extending his ten-year rule of the country as Prime Minister ten more years, as President. Erdogan’s potential changes could include giving the President the constitutional power to appoint ministers and dissolve parliament.

On Aug. 28, Erdogan will give an oath in front of parliament, in which, among other things, he promises to abide by Turkey’s Kemalist principle of secularism, as well as to protect human rights. How he will balance the secularism with his own Islamist leanings, not to mention his penchant for restricting rights such as freedom of speech, remains to be seen. Erdogan seeks to win another 5-year term in 2019, which would keep him in power until the centennial of the Turkish Republic’s founding by Kemal Ataturk, a man to whom Erdogan, despite believing in different ideals, seems to aspire. Erdogan’s first visit after winning election was a stop for prayer at the Eyup Sultan Mosque, the traditional coronation venue for Ottoman sultans. Perhaps he sees himself somewhere between Ataturk and a sultan.

Aren Torikian

Aren Torikian

Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, Aren Torikian has lived in Lexington, Massachusetts for most of his life. A student at Tufts University, Aren intends to study history and economics. He is currently interning at the Armenian Weekly, as part of the Armenian Students’ Association of America (ASA) internship in journalism program.He is a member of the Greater Boston chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation, and enjoys watching re-runs, namely of Scrubs and The Office.


  1. The options for President were Erdogan, Erdogan v2 with a Phd and ties to the Gulen movement, and a Kurd who is way to liberal and respects human and minority rights too much to ever be elected in a place like Turkey.

    Furthermore, I don’t understand why Erdogan is going through all this trouble with the presidency and transferring powers there. He could’ve stayed PM. There’s no constitutional term limit for Prime Ministers, the only thing limiting him was AKP’s own charter which limited his tenure to 3 terms. He could have just changed that. Seems like an uncharacteristic respect for democratic values to abide by those rules.

    • I read someplace that under the current Turkish constitution, the office of Presidency is only symbolic. Certainly Gul had no power while Erdogan was PM. So if a new PM is selected by AKP (presumably Gul), Erdogan will have no power. Makes no sense.

      Erdogan is not the type to just give up power. It has been clear during his tenure since 2003 that he wants total control over every aspect of life in Turkey and to shape it according to his Islamist worldview.

      Maybe he will next change the Constitution ?
      What is your take on what he is up to.

    • Presidency has always been symbolic since Turkey had its first democratic elections in 1950. Prior to that, there wasn’t a real democracy so I don’t include that era.

      During the first period of Erdogan’s Prime Ministership (until 2007), the President was Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist (who banned women in headscarves from Cankaya). He vetoed a lot of legislation, and though AKP had the vast majority of seats in parliament and could find away around his vetoes, Sezer was a thorn in the side of Erdogan and AKP and it was plainly obvious he greatly disliked Erdogan and Islamists.

      So in 2007, Erdogan and AKP thought they solved this problem by putting a yes-man in Cankaya, Abdullah Gul. Though I think its clear in many cases Erdogan and Gul were playing good cop-bad cop, I find Gul to be a little more moderate than Erdogan. At the very least, he has a calmer demeanor and is much more respectful to political opposition. There are also reports, and I’m not sure if they are just rumors or something more, that Erdogan and Gul don’t like each other anymore. I’d be a little surprised if Gul was named PM. I’ve also read that Davutoglu is out of question as well due to his failure as FM. I’ve read that Binali Yildirim may be the next Prime Minister, as he is the textbook definition of a yes-man.

      Erdogan wants to change Turkey into a Presidential republic. However, this constitutional change will be hotly contested and will not happen overnight. He needs someone in the PM post that will do everything he says until the change to a presidential republic happens, which presumably it will. Then there will be no question as to whole holds the power.

    • It’s interesting that both Gulen and Erdogan are religiously inclined as opposed to being ‘secular’, but are also opposed to one another. I suppose Erdogan accuses Gulen of being an American shill, but recent audio leaks proved that so is Erdogan, although I don’t know if Erdogan has plans to change that.

      And with – “is way to liberal and respects human and minority rights too much to ever be elected in a place like Turkey.” – I think you pretty much summed up all that is wrong with Turkey.

  2. As I wrote on my fbk today, just another Turk with great ambition of power, we Armenians know how that can end….ask Tallat Pasha
    so the question is does the world at this sensible time need another tirant and dictator? I think not, and by the way, there goes any chance for turkish centennial recognition of any kind of Genocide, least of the Armenian.

    • Arthur, How could you say Tyrant and dictator ? He was elected with a majority in a free and fair election, it is a functional democracy, not like in North Korea where Kim junior gets a 99.99% vote

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