Erdogan greets supporters in Istanbul, August 2014.
Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters

Now that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become the country's first popularly elected president, analysts are speculating about his next moves. Although Turkey’s president is formally only the head of state, the position will provide a platform from which Erdogan can influence policies and appointments. Moreover, he has said on multiple occasions that he will expand the powers of the office to their constitutionally mandated limit -- and then some.

Given his imperious attitude, Erdogan is often compared to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Although he occasionally consulted with advisers, Ataturk imposed sweeping changes through sheer force of will. Erdogan is just as determined. But he also has something Ataturk did not: the near-complete loyalty of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which provides a ready mechanism for setting policy.

Although he is mentioned less often, another Turkish political figure offers an even better point of comparison: Turgut Ozal, who served as prime minister in 1983–89 and as president in 1989–93. Both Erdogan and Ozal entered politics though nontraditional routes: Ozal was an economist before being tapped to work for Turkey’s post-1980 junta. Erdogan famously came from an impoverished background and was a talented amateur soccer player before becoming active in the Islamist Welfare Party. Both men went on to break with their political patrons and form their own center-right political groups -- Ozal the Motherland Party and Erdogan the AKP. Both saw their parties come to dominate Turkish politics and went on to serve as prime minister and then president.

As prime minister, Erdogan has focused on the same three areas that Ozal did: the economy, foreign policy, and minority reconciliation. A strong proponent of liberal capitalism, Ozal is credited with opening up and modernizing the Turkish economy during his tenure as prime minister. He continued his program of free-market expansion and regional trade as president, laying the groundwork for strong economic growth in the 1990s and in the early years of this century. Erdogan has drawn up his own ambitious economic agenda, vowing to make the Turkish economy one of the world’s ten largest by 2023. To add weight to his pledge, he has launched a series of massive infrastructure projects designed to make Turkey look like a modern industrialized country. Although Erdogan is committed to free market development, his policies on usury are more Islamist than capitalist (he would like to remove the ability to charge interest at some point in the future, for example). 

In dealing with the larger world, Ozal understood that geopolitical changes provided new opportunities to expand Ankara’s influence. He capitalized on the vacuum created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, dispatching Turkish political advisers and construction companies to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. His rhetoric was as lofty as Erdogan’s: In 1992, he proclaimed that the twenty-first century would be the “century of the Turks.” He also determined that the uncertainty generated by the end of the Cold War required Turkey to curry favor with the United States. He jumped at the opportunity to support Operation Desert Storm and never publicly questioned Washington. Erdogan, for his part, believes that Turkey is destined to play a leading role in the Middle East. He has aggressively promoted the idea of a Turkish leadership by building closer political and trade relations with Arab states and Iran. And he has made Turkey as indispensable to Washington as Ozal had, by positioning it to be Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East. Like Ozal, Erdogan has taken a personal approach. He has tried to persuade U.S. President Barack Obama that he, personally, is America’s best friend in the region.

Finally, Ozal, like Erdogan, made serious efforts to reconcile with Turkey’s minorities. In the early 1990s, he opened negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s main Kurdish rebel group, leading to a cease-fire in 1993. He died before he could present plans to integrate the Kurds into Turkish society, and a Kurdish insurgency erupted again. Erdogan backed a similar negotiation process and, in 2009, announced a plan to integrate Turkey’s Kurdish minority that included limited amnesty for Kurdish fighters and an easing of restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language. He has come closer than any other Turkish prime minister to acknowledging that the Ottomans committed genocide against the country’s Armenian population during the 1930s. In 2011, he apologized on behalf of the state for the Dersim massacre in 1937–38, in which the Turkish government killed thousands of Alevi and Zaza civilians in eastern Turkey.

In other words, Erdogan might well seem like Ozal, come again. If that is the case, one can expect the next few years to produce a stronger Turkish president and a weaker prime minister. When it came to governing style, Ozal treated his presidency like his prime ministership, essentially ruling by decree. For most of his tenure, he managed to resist efforts by the opposition to contain him and even maintained primacy over the military, which was much more assertive at the time. Erdogan will attempt to do the same.

Yet despite Ozal’s best efforts, his vision of a strong executive branch failed to outlast his lifetime, in large part due to the resistance of Turkey’s political class. That could turn out to be the case for Erdogan, too. He has failed to amend the constitution in the past and is unlikely to succeed in the future. Erdogan will also have to work as hard as Ozal to keep his political base united behind him: evidence is mounting that the economy is about to contract, that his infrastructure projects are failing, and that Turkey’s international position is weakening.

In addition, Erdogan will likely face stiff opposition from the judiciary, especially the Constitutional Court, which maintains its political independence and has not been afraid to contradict the AKP’s party line. Whoever ends up as the next prime minister will at least have the legal ability to challenge Erdogan’s political dominance.

Further, the country’s political opposition remains divided and disorganized but still represents approximately 50 percent of the population. There is enough political discontent to keep Erdogan on his toes. And if parliament, the prime minister’s office, and the courts play their cards right, they can force him to pay dearly for every attempt to expand his reach. Ozal, like Erdogan, drifted toward authoritarianism in the face of stiff opposition. But he also died in office, before he could bring his plans to fruition, and so it remains difficult to assess whether he would have ultimately succeeded.