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Erdogan eyes history as Turkey votes in first direct presidential poll

© AFP

Video by Claire WILLIAMS

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-08-10

A year after the Gezi Park protests and a corruption scandal that exposed the fault-lines in Turkish politics, current PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the frontrunner in Sunday’s presidential election, the first by a popular vote.

Turkey voted in a historic presidential election Sunday, with current PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan the favourite to become the country’s first head of state to be selected by a popular vote.

Polls closed at 1400 GMT, with unofficial results expected on Sunday evening.

But a year after the Gezi Park protests and a corruption scandal that exposed the fault-lines in Turkish politics, Erdogan is widely expected to replace incumbent Abdullah Gul for a five-year term and cement his position as position as Turkey's all-powerful leader.

Over the past few weeks, the streets, squares, soccer stadiums and auditoriums across Turkey have pulsated with Erdogan’s 2014 campaign song, a catchy tune building up to a rousing, deceptively simply refrain that draws out the candidate’s name: “Reeee…cep Tayyip Erdogan!”

After 11 years in power, Turkey’s prime minister has reached his three-year term limit and is running for president in Sunday’s election – the first by a popular vote. In the past, parliament chose the country’s president, who has performed a largely ceremonial role.

But that is likely to change as Erdogan seeks to grant new powers to the president – should he be elected to Turkey’s top job.

As voters across Turkey cast their ballots in the August 10 vote, there was a keen sense that history was in the making in this ancient land that bridges the continents of Asia and Europe.

Opinion polls in the lead-up to Sunday’s election put Erdogan’s support at between 51% to 56% of the vote – around 20 points ahead of the main opposition candidates. Under Turkish law, the leading candidate needs 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Erdogan is widely expected to win the 2014 presidential election – despite an eventful year that saw protests break out in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the eruption of a major corruption scandal that exposed the fault-lines in Turkish politics, as well as within Islamist ranks, and which sparked a vitriolic government campaign against the so-called “Gulenists” – supporters of US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen.

Opponents of the 60-year-old Erdogan criticise his authoritarian style, his purges of prosecutors and police officers, his attempts to stifle dissent by attacking the press and his overweening political ambition, which seeks to introduce a US-style presidential system without the American checks and balances on power.

But his lasting popularity is testimony to the deep rifts in Turkish society: between the secularists, who uphold the banner of the nation’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the religious conservatives who form Erdogan’s support base.

Appealing to a conservative base

The vision and hopes of this religious, pro-business base was exemplified in a three-minute campaign video depicting an older generation reverentially handing over a seemingly sacred object, wrapped in a cloth – as copies of the Koran are stored across the Muslim world.

While carriers bear their precious parcel from hamlets, villages, towns and cities to the gates of Cankaya – the Turkish presidential office – the cloth-bound objects are revealed to be the golden stars of the presidential insignia.

The symbolism of the video is evident to most Turks: an older generation guarding the symbols of bygone greatness passes their secretly-guarded treasures to the next  – until the final shot, when Erdogan himself appears to place the last star of the presidential insignia on the gates on Cankaya.

For Erdogan’s critics, the video encapsulates their worst fears: that the man who has styled himself as a modern-day Ottoman sultan plans to move the country away from Ataturk’s secular ideals.

Gauging the national mood

But those fears do not represent a threat for Turkey’s religious conservatives, who see themselves as overlooked by the country’s secular elites.

Erdogan’s presidential rivals include Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu – the joint candidate of the two main opposition parties, the centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – as well as Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas. Both have lagged far behind in opinion polls.

Ihsanoglu, a seasoned diplomat, has run a campaign that is the antithesis of the Erdogan style, steering clear of rousing speeches at mass rallies festooned with party symbols and drowned by campaign songs.

"The people are fed up with this divisive rhetoric and mistakes. They are looking for a calm, dignified way of ruling," said Ihsanoglu in an interview with Reuters weeks before Sunday’s poll.

Erdogan’s supporters would strongly disagree with Ihsanoglu’s reading of the national mood. The results of Sunday’s vote, they insist, will settle that discourse.

If no candidate makes the 50% mark in Sunday’s poll, a second round is scheduled for August 24.
 

Date created : 2014-08-10

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