Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan announced Monday that he will be chairing an upcoming cabinet meeting to be held in his ornate presidential palace on January 19. The move is a first – the presidency is a largely ceremonial position, with the prime minister historically holding the reins in Ankara. (Note that Erdogan served as prime minster for over a decade, until he reached his term limit in 2014.) Erdogan’s predecessor Abdullah Gul never chaired a cabinet meeting.
But while it may be unprecedented, Erdogan’s decision is predictable. After over a decade as Turkey’s prime minister – a period during which he implemented an abrasive, no holds barred style of leadership dubbed “Kasimpasa” after his childhood neighborhood — Erdogan set his sights on the presidency. That is a modified and strengthened version of the presidency. It’s no secret that Erdogan hopes to modify the office via a constitutional amendment that would steer Turkey away from its current parliamentary system. The change is a hard sell even to the president’s conservative support base, and an even harder one to moderate voters already uneasy with Erdogan’s authoritarian creep. Nonetheless, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is gearing up for June parliamentary elections when a decisive victory could mean pushing through the contested amendment. (The AKP has won three general elections in a row, the latest this March despite a string of scandals and public protests.)
In the meantime, Erdogan is slowly consolidating power. In the four months since taking office, the president has made much use of the fact that he is Turkey’s first directly elected president, and claimed constitutional powers not used by his predecessors. (The president stated, “I have said that, as the president who was directly elected by the people, I will make full use of the powers bestowed by the Constitution.”) As a result of Erdogan’s aggressive stance, there are rumors of rift between Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Erdogan over the cabinet chairing issue as well as over hints of a shadow cabinet loyal to the president. Though Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, initially resistant, was quick to back the president’s announcement on Monday.
Erdogan’s move could reignite the country’s weak opposition, which despite a wave of nationwide protests in 2013, has failed to transform public concerns over the president’s tendencies towards one-man rule into progress at the ballot boxes. However, given the president’s current momentum – see his recent crackdown on supporters of his greatest rival, the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen — time may be running out.
Yes, the June parliamentary vote is not won yet (here the Kurdish vote may be a game changer) but if Erdogan obtains unchecked executive powers, one-man rule in Turkey could go from hypothetical to reality.