Erdoğan’s elevation to the presidency triggers immediate questions about his succession and how much he will remain involved with it.
It is the largest personal mandate a Turkish politician has ever received. With 20.5 million votes – 52% of everyone who voted – no-one can doubt the magnitude of his achievement.
Appearing on the balcony of his AK Party’s headquarters, President-elect Erdoğan spoke of constructing a new Turkey with all grievances forgotten, but almost in the same breadth accused his political opponents of using divisive tactics.
Turkish political discourse has already shifted to when he will step down as party leader and prime minister, who will succeed him, and how independent-indeed that prime minister can be.
It is too early to tell whether Mr Erdoğan will be as interventionist a president as he has hinted he will, but it’s worth remembering Turkey has had openly partisan presidents before.
Before 1960, it was conventional for the president to be a member of the party in government. Indeed, when İsmet İnönü’s CHP lost the 1950 election to the Democrat Party, he duly handed over the presidency to its leader Celal Bayar.
But the more prescient example from modern times is Turgut Özal. He gave up his Motherland Party membership card after becoming president in 1989, but did never quite relinquishe the party leadership. His successor as prime minister, Yıldırım Akbulut, was widely derided as a puppet leader and with good reason: Özal routinely interfered in cabinet decisions and day-to-day politics. Two ministers resigned over his meddling in foreign affairs.
So vehement was the opposition to Özal’s presidency that his main political opponent, Süleyman Demirel, would speak passionately of building a coalition of support in parliament to topple him. That sounds like perfectly normal political rhetoric towards a prime minister; towards the elevated office of president, it is disconcerting stuff. Not even during Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most rancorous disputes with Ahmet Necdet Sezer did any politician talk about unseating the president.
THE TROUBLING PAST
It is a step too far into the future to envisage a time when President Erdoğan has to contend with a government hostile to him, but the Özal precedent has certainly played on his mind.
The AK Party leadership is meeting this morning to decide how to proceed. The rumour is that the party will call an extraordinary congress to elect a new leader. That leader could still potentially be outgoing President Abdullah Gül, but he is understood to be deeply conflicted over the idea. Part of him believes a return to active politics would demean the office he is just vacating. And he wouldn’t be able to stand for the leadership even if he does overcome his inner wrangling; he needs to become an MP first
But the idea of a caretaker prime minister who would take the AK Party through to the 2015 general election and pave the way for Mr Gül doesn’t quite work either. Winning general elections is hardly the remit of a temporary manager, even in a party as electorally popular as the AK.
That leads to the idea that Mr Erdoğan’s immediate replacement could be a more permanent choice. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu ticks quite a few boxes. So does Bülent Arınç and Mehmet Ali Şahin.
We could all start picturing internal democracy flourishing in the AK Party and a tough but friendly competition between colleagues for the leadership but, well, I wouldn’t bet much on it. Someone will be pulling the strings.