Can Erdogan run for third term in Turkey's upcoming election? / Andrew Wilks

As Turkey rushes toward elections in mid-May, one issue surrounding the polls has risen above others: whether incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is constitutionally allowed to run for a third term.

The argument swirling around the presidential election, which is due to be held alongside a parliamentary vote on May 14, centers on Article 101 of the Turkish Constitution. The eight-paragraph clause states that a presidential term runs for five years and a candidate can be elected for a maximum of two terms.

Erdogan was first elected president in August 2014, having previously served as prime minister since 2003. He was re-elected in an early election in June 2018.

The constitution, therefore, appears to rule out an Erdogan candidacy.

But Erdogan is running as the candidate for the People’s Alliance — the electoral pact between his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP).

His supporters back the legality of his candidacy by arguing that constitutional changes introduced in a 2017 referendum, which came into force in the following year’s election, mean Erdogan’s first, post-2014 term does not count.

The referendum ended Turkey’s previous parliamentary system and brought about a presidential regime that concentrated power in the hands of the president, which had been a largely ceremonial role, as both head of state and government.

Therefore, according to the argument of Erdogan’s backers, his 2018 victory was the first under the new system and should be considered his initial term in office.

“The constitutional amendment adopted in 2017 is so clear that it does not allow for the slightest discussion,” Erdogan told crowds in Denizli, western Turkey, on Saturday. “Turkey switched to a new administrative system with the 2018 elections. In this respect, the stopwatch was reset.

“By the law, the president who was actually elected in 2018 is the first president of the new system.”

There is one path by which Erdogan could stand for re-election that is agreed on by all parties: if parliament calls an early election through a three-fifths majority rather than the president bringing forward the vote.

The People’s Alliance doesn’t have a three-fifths majority — the three parties have 335 seats between them, 35 votes short of the 360 needed in the 600-seat chamber. This means Erdogan seems set on calling an early poll and denying himself the option of running for a third time under the legitimacy of a vote initiated by lawmakers.

The opposition has naturally decried Erdogan’s “unconstitutional” candidacy.

The six party-strong Nation Alliance — formed of the Republication People’s Party (CHP), the Iyi Party, the Saadet Party, the Demokrat Party, the Gelecek Party and the Deva Party‚ issued a statement Thursday outlining their position.

“It is not possible for Mr. Erdogan to be a candidate in the elections to be held on May 14 unless the parliament decides to call an early election,” it read.

“The president’s announcement of his candidacy for the third time, contrary to the constitution, is another tragedy he has added to our history of democracy. We do not accept this action that ignores the constitution.”

The final say on Erdogan’s candidacy lies with the High Election Board (YSK), which in recent years has delivered a succession of decisions favoring the ruling party.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has emerged as the opposition’s most likely candidate to stand against Erdogan, reflected the widely held view of the YSK’s partisanship last week.

“Let’s say we objected to [Erdogan’s candidacy],” he told journalists in Kocaeli, northwestern Turkey, on Jan. 23. “The High Election Board has the final say. It’s Erdogan who appointed the YSK members. There is nowhere to object to YSK’s ruling. Even the Constitutional Court cannot reconsider their ruling.

“Therefore, we have no intention of being locked into the debate of whether Erdogan is a candidate or not. Erdogan may or may not be a candidate, but we want to win the election by securing it with integrity and bringing Turkey to the side of democracy.”

Other opposition figures such as Iyi Party head Meral Aksener have stressed that they will “beat him at the ballot box.” Only Deva Party chief Ali Babacan has pledged to challenge any YSK decision in favor of Erdogan’s candidacy.

Idris Sahin, once an influential AKP lawmaker but now spokesman for the Deva Party, recalled debates with in the ruling party at the time of the 2017 constitutional changes.

“Even then, in party circles, I remember conversations where people asked, ‘Will he do it for life? He will be 75 or 76 years old in 2029. Isn’t that enough?’” he said, referring to the end-date for a third Erdogan term had early elections not been held in 2018.

Consideration was given to amending Article 101 to smooth the way for a third term, according to Sahin, but the necessary clause was “forgotten.”


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