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Campaign mode

Senada Sokollu / nmMay 9, 2014

In August, Turkey's president will be directly elected by the people, for the first time ever. Prime Minister Erdogan is expected to run - and observers fear he has plans to shake up Turkey's political system.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Image: Reuters

As the first anniversary of the protests surrounding Istanbul's Gezi Park draws near (28.05.2014), trials for 255 people involved in the mass demonstrations, including seven foreigners, are getting underway. They face charges including violating protest laws, damaging a place of worship and injuring civilians.

Many of the defendants feel they've been unfairly treated by the government. "I met four of my friends at Taksim Square. Then suddenly the police arrested us. We didn't know what happened. I'm not guilty, and I'm demanding an acquittal," graphic designer Seckin Cebeci told news channel CNN Turk.

Cameraman Gorkem Celiloglu has a similar story. "I moved into a group of protesters with my camera. When the police released tear gas, the group ran off and I was left standing there alone. Then I was arrested," he said. "That's not right."

Timing of the trials is no coincidence, according to Fethi Acikel, a political scientist at the University of Ankara. "Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to showcase his authoritarian style of government in the run up to the presidential elections in August," he told DW. "He's pursued a friend/foe strategy since the beginning of the protests."

Erdogan is trying to divide the country in two, said Acikel. "He's trying to show his electorate that he goes after troublemakers. It wouldn't surprise me if Prime Minister Erdogan turns the anniversary into a kind of campaign for the presidential election."

President Abdullah Gul (Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Presidents like Abdullah Gul have traditionally taken on a more ceremonial roleImage: AFP/Getty Images

It's telling, said the political scientist, that they're still looking for the police and security officials who injured countless people, and even killed some protesters, nearly a full year after the demonstrations erupted. "There's a somber mood in society. This trial shows nothing has changed."

Iron fist?

This August 10, the Turkish people will go to the polls to directly elect their Turkish president for the first time. If there's no result after the first round of voting, a second runoff election will take place August 24.

It's not yet clear who will run, but most observers expect Prime Minister Erdogan to throw his hat into the ring. And last week's meeting of the ruling Islamic AK party leadership left little room for doubt.

At the gathering, the party agreed on a new rule: no AKP representative could remain in the same office for more than three legislative periods. That means Erdogan can't be prime minister for another term. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc stated the AKP's presidential candidacy would be "for Erdogan, 100 percent," if he wants it.

Erdogan has vowed to exercise the "full power" of the executive branch, if elected. That would be something new in Turkish politics, said Evren Balta, a political scientist at the Yildiz University in Istanbul.

Evren Balta
Evren Balta thinks Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarianImage: privat

The president is afforded a significant amount of power under the Turkish constitution. "However, this power has never been used in its entirety," Balta told DW. "Turkey's presidents have usually been quite neutral and mainly taken on a symbolic role." Erdogan has indicated he wants to change this. "We can be sure that if Erdogan is elected president in August, he will try to govern like a president in a presidential system" - probably with an authoritarian style, said Balta.

Turkish press 'not free'

Under Erdogan between 2002 and 2007, Turkey took some significant steps toward democratization, Balta said. "Weakening the military was a key demand from the EU in order for Turkey to become an EU member; Erdogan was the first politician to make that happen," she said. "We embraced him because he was a reformist."

But since 2010, the AKP has become increasingly authoritarian, primarily in its control over the media. Balta pointed to a recent report published by the human rights organization Freedom House. It downgraded Turkey's press freedom status from "partly free" to "not free."

"Under Erdogan, there's simply way too much pressure on the media," said Balta.

Protesters with placards demand press freedom (Photo: EPA/SEDAT SUNA)
Press freedom has been significantly curtailed under Prime Minister ErdoganImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Acikel agrees that Erdogan drove important reforms during his early years in office. "But when he felt his electorate stood faithfully behind him, he began to govern in a more authoritarian way," he said. "The press was increasingly muzzled, more than 60 columnists lost their jobs, and state television was brought under personal control of the prime minister."

According to Acikel, Erdogan would rule in the same style as Putin does in Russia, transforming Turkey into a country with conservative Islamic leadership. He said that although Turkey has a parliamentary system, and not a presidential one, "we all know that Erdogan would want to use his power to the maximum, if elected president."