Is İhsanoğlu David to Erdoğan’s Goliath?

Is İhsanoğlu David to Erdoğan’s Goliath?

Turkey is going to elect its 12th president this year, with the election’s first round to be held on Aug. 10. The first 11 of our presidents were elected by Parliament, while this time it is going to be done by direct popular vote. A direct vote to elect the president of a parliamentary system paves the way for a constitutional crisis, if you ask me. A popularly elected president will surely change the chemistry of our parliamentary system. He (as there are no female candidates in the race) will surely have moral authority to push his agenda.

A direct vote to elect the president in a parliamentary system is a peculiar arrangement. Why do we have this peculiarity? It was added to our constitution in 2007, during discussions about the election of Abdullah Gül as the 11th president of the Republic. At the time, the opposition raised a legal argument to make life harder for the AKP-dominated Parliament to elect the president: At least 367 parliamentarians had to participate in the vote, which put the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 354 seats short of the target. That is now widely recognized as a case of legal obfuscation. In a tactical move however, the AKP government amended the Constitution in order to for the president to be elected with popular vote. It saved the day, but put a peculiar twist to the design of our parliamentary democracy. In the following years, Turkey failed to draft a new Constitution, so it just stayed the way it is. Now, D-day has arrived.

We now have three presidential candidates. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is still Turkey’s prime minister, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, an academic and former General Secretary of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has the support of the ruling AKP, and Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is now supported by five political parties (the Republican People’s Party, CHP, the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, the Democrat Party, DP, the Independent Turkey Party, BTP, and the Democratic Left Party, DSP).

Selahattin Demirtaş is backed by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and its new offshoot, the pro-minority HDP, and is essentially the Kurdish candidate. If you take everything from the last municipal election of March 30 as given and look at the figures, Erdoğan has the upper hand, with İhsanoğlu as the underdog and Demirtaş running an entirely different race, one for Kurdish reconciliation in Turkey.  

It is easy to understand Demirtaş’s position. He wants to increase the Kurds’ bargaining power in the recently accelerating reconciliation process. That is smart. There is no question that his strategy is a novelty in Turkish elections. It also means that there are Kurdish Turks or Turkish Kurds in Turkey, which is definitely an improvement on the past. I think, however, that it is İhsanoğlu’s candidacy that makes this the first-ever popular election for the presidency. Let me tell you why.

Ever since I heard of İhsanoğlu’s run, the story of David and Goliath has been on my mind, or rather the Malcolm Gladwell version of the Old Testament story. In essence, the story is about how underdogs can beat powerful adversaries. Let me remind you the biblical story.

Goliath came forward at Elah and asked the ones besieged to send their champion for single combat. The result, he said, would determine their fate. Goliath of course, was expecting a warrior like himself to come forward. He knew from experience that any such fight, taking place on his own terms, was a short one. He did not think that David, a goatherd with no knowledge of fighting, would answer his challenge. When asked to wear armor like Goliath, David said “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it.” Instead, he picked up five smooth stones and placed them in his bag. He walked down to meet Goliath with his shepherd’s stick and everyday clothes. Without approaching the giant, David took out his sling and put one of the stones into its leather pouch, and as the stone met Goliath’s forehead the giant fell unconscious. David then seized Goliath’s sword and finished him off.

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu has severe disadvantages in this fight. But what the story of David and Goliath tells us is that underdogs can win by playing according to a different set of rules. Is İhsanoğlu David to Erdoğan’s Goliath? We shall see.