Will President Erdoğan really stop running in Turkey's elections?

Arzu Geybullayeva

On March 8, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the upcoming municipal election scheduled for March 31 would be his last. Although he is not running himself, the President has been campaigning for his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), ahead of the local elections, with eyes set on winning back major cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. All three are currently run by the opposition Republican People Party (CHP). So why make the announcement in the first place when he was re-elected as the country's president in a contested election in May 2023 with four years remaining?

Since his remark, many have speculated on the reasons behind Erdoğan's statement. Michael Sercan Daventry, a British-Turkish journalist, shared a thread on X offering his take as a long time Turkey observer of what the true intentions may entail. He believes Erdoğan meant “to counter the growing perception even among some Turkish conservatives that he is settling himself in to become president for life.”

Who would replace the incumbent in the absence of a successor is another question pointed out by Onur Alp, MENA news managing editor at Bloomberg:

While the president cannot run in the next presidential race in 2028, according to Turkey's Constitution, there are two scenarios in which this can change. In the first scenario, President Erdoğan and the AKP would need to secure 400 votes in the parliament to change the constitution. Turkey's parliament, the Grand National Assembly, consists of 600 seats. At the moment, the AKP and its main ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), hold 313 seats. Thus, pushing for a constitutional amendment with a parliamentary vote would largely depend on whether the ruling party and the President can secure the support of other political party representatives.

In the second scenario, the parliament can call for an early election. But even in this scenario, 360 parliamentary votes are needed.

According to the Constitution, President Erdoğan could not run in the May 2023 election either. But that was contested ahead of the vote in May by the People's Alliance (a coalition of the ruling AKP and the nationalist MHP), who argued at the time that it would not constitute a third term on the grounds that Erdoğan's first term in office was before the 2017 constitutional changes replacing the country's governing structure. Constitutional lawyers argued otherwise but to no avail.

The 2017 referendum replaced the parliamentary system with an executive presidency, granting the president sweeping rights. Experts at the time pointed out that the change led the country to a weaker parliament, undermined the separation of powers, politicized the judiciary branch, crippled institutions, and promoted authoritarian practices.

That referendum was used as the main talking point among AKP supporters ahead of the May general election — President Erdoğan's victory in the 2014 presidential race was not to be counted as his first time. What did count instead was his victory in the 2018 general election.

Despite the dust from the general elections still settling and the local elections just weeks away, President Erdoğan's remark about not running again rang hollow. After all, he has said it before.

In 2009, he mentioned it was his last election as a candidate in the parliamentary vote, in 2012, it was his last election as the chairman of the ruling AKP, in 2022 and in 2023, he asked for one last vote from the people. He did not run in the 2011 parliamentary vote but took over the presidency in 2014. In 2017, following the referendum, he became the chairman of AKP once again (prior to the constitutional amendments, the elected President was not allowed to remain as the head of a political party).

And “until death us part” runs deep among AKP supporters and members. If there is public demand to extend the President's tenure, measures will be taken, said deputy chair of the AKP Mustafa Elitaş, adding, “Certainly, we want to continue under our leader until death.”

Or as the former Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ wrote on X, “Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. Perhaps when the time comes, the Parliament may decide to renew the elections, opening the path for our President to run again.”

A life-long presidency will require a “very tight and concession-filled bargaining process,” wrote journalist Murat Yetkin, including securing “support from the opposition front with the approval of his strategic partner, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli.” 

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