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August 03, 2012, Friday

And the next Turkish president is…

It is an absolutely normal feature of functioning pluralistic democracies when more than one candidate announces her or his interest in a soon-to-be-vacant public office. Actually, this does not just relate to candidates from the governing party, but should also apply to the political opposition. Current speculation in Turkey over whether President Abdullah Gül is pondering running for a second term reflects the health of the system.

What is even more positive is that the public has already begun to discuss the issue. Whoever ascends to Çankaya after President Gül’s first term in office comes to an end will take their place at the helm of an emerging “European Anatolian Tiger.” The questions on everyone’s mind are, first, who will that personality be? And, second, what legal powers will the office holder really have? In this column I shall propose a third issue worthy of debate.

Before addressing the question of how Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will handle the delicate matter of the next presidential term and proposed changes to the president’s role, let us briefly discuss the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Although most pollsters would probably agree that it is extremely unlikely a candidate nominated by the CHP will be swept to power this time around, following the expiry of President Gül’s mandate, it is nevertheless necessary, at least on paper, to propose a contender. It will be a tough and most definitely frustrating job for whoever that person turns out to be, but democracy depends on the swing of power between government and opposition, and looking not just two but perhaps seven years ahead, there will come a time in the future when an opposition, or even independent, candidate manages to secure enough votes to ascend to Çankaya.

Much less frustrating than what lies ahead for the CHP, but even more challenging, if ultimately much more rewarding, is the task for the governing AK Party. The last thing the party wants, after having survived so many attempts to remove it from power -- including some illegal ones, those by shady underground networks -- is to suffer a serious internal split because of an upcoming presidential nomination process. You will of course be aware which two camps, at least hypothetically, I am talking about: President Abdullah Gül on the one side, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the other.

Yet no one bar the two successful politicians themselves can answer the question of whether these two camps will ever form.

From an observer’s standpoint, I wish to add one seemingly overlooked point into the equation. It is not just about who will become Turkey’s future president, but also what kind of country he or she will inherit. And the country that person is about to represent as its highest elected office holder might very well be described as “Europe’s Anatolian Tiger.”

Turkey’s ongoing democratization efforts, en route to a fully fledged civil society, will continue much more smoothly as long as the country’s economic bandwagon likewise continues to move forward. Hence, whoever becomes the future Turkish president, either with more or with similar legal powers to those of the current office holder, must work in tandem with whoever the prime minister is, as it is the government that is in charge of macro and microeconomic policies and not the president. And whoever Turkey’s next prime minister is must manage to finalize privatization efforts, whilst not sidelining the interests of current employees; must manage to maintain a stable banking system; must allow for a gradual, yet nevertheless substantial, increase in the minimum wage and retirement pensions; must overhaul the education system almost from scratch so as to make certain economic policies do not remain in the realm of purely academic discourse, but that the finance sector is staffed with people possessing relevant professional as well as intellectual skills.

I am not taking a position at this stage on who would be best suited to either stay in or move to Çankaya palace. I am taking a position, however, with a view to hoping that the upcoming AK Party convention continues to take the future of the economy -- the basis for an ultimately peaceful, united and even more democratic nation -- as seriously as it has until now, and is not drawn into the maelstrom of party in-fighting.

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