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Turkey presidential vote referendum on system

Turkey’s presidential election Sunday will mark the first time the country's voters have had the chance to choose their president in a direct election. But in effect, political analysts say, voters will be weighing in on whether they approve of changing Turkey's parliamentary system into one where the president wields more power. The leading candidate is thought to be the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is prevented by the rules of his party from seeking another term as prime minister. While the presidency has in the past been a largely ceremonial post, Erdogan -- Turkey's dominant political figure for more than a decade -- envisions a more powerful presidency in the future. There seems little doubt that he will win -- whether outright, with more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, or in a run-off two weeks later. Analysts said the candidate of the major opposition parties, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, is little more than a symbolic opponent in the three-candidate race. The third candidate is Selahattin Demirtas, the head a Kurdish party, who is thought to have little chance of winning. “Erdogan understands that the upcoming presidential election is a kind of referendum on whether citizens confirm the changing of the Turkey’s parliamentary system or not,” Fuat Keyman, a Turkish political scientist, told The Anadolu Agency.

In July, in his election vision speech -- a speech given by all Turkish candidates -- Erdogan said that as president he would be a “performer, active and hard-working.”

Keyman said the percentage of the vote garnered by Erdogan on Sunday would be important to watch.

"If he gets around 54, 55 percent in the first round, he will push for early parliamentary elections -- and then constitutional change to the parliamentary system,” Keyman said.

But Ihsanoglu, a former diplomat and long-term president of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Demirtas, the youngest of the candidates and co-chairman of the People’s Democracy Party, could together deny Erdogan the 50 percent of the vote he needs to win outright. Should none of the candidates take more than 50 percent of the votes, a second round of voting will take place Aug. 24.

“The outgoing president, Abdullah Gul, was also a very active one, making many international visits, commenting on the hot topics during his term, but Erdogan wants to move it forward," said Keyman. "A more active role, as Erdogan contemplates, requires the president to have more authority in economics, foreign policy and administration.” 

Some Kurdish political circles also see some merit in Erdogan’s plans to move to a presidential system, seeing it as an opportunity to strengthen regional authorities in Turkey.

Umit Firat, a Kurdish writer and former politician, said Ihsanoglu represents “the established system.”

"The presidency will never be the same again in Turkey if Erdogan wins,” Firat said.

Ihsanoglu has made it clear that he opposes such a change to the system. 

“Those who want a presidential system have to know that we don’t have a federal structure," Ihsanoglu said at a rally in Ankara on Tuesday. "Turkey is a unitary state. Turkey will not disintegrate; it will continue its unitary state tradition.” 

Firat said that Sunday's elections will the first of their kind in Turkish history, in that they will have a Kurdish politician in the race. 

“The election process is exemplary of the progress Turkey has taken with regard to the Kurdish issue," he said. "Kurds, whose ethnicity and language has been denied in Turkey since the '70s, can now even be presidential candidates without having to deny their identities.”

Ilter Turan said that, while members of the ruling AK party tend to see Sunday's election as a referendum on a presidential system, another vote would be required to effect real change. 

“Such a change is only possible through a constitutional amendment, which requires an independent voting process,” Turan said.

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