A Smart Vice-Presidential Nomination can be a Game-Changer

Turkey is set to have its first presidential election after the 2017 constitutional referendum that narrowly approved replacing the parliamentary system with an executive presidency. 

The opposition parties have almost finished selecting their candidates to try to defeat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has dominated Turkish politics for a decade-and-a-half. The deadline for submitting candidates is May 5. 

Current discussions on potential candidates show that no party has considered incorporating nominations for the vice-presidency as a part of their campaign strategy. 

In the United States, perhaps the most successful and enduring example of a presidential system, the selection of vice presidential candidates is a key element of each presidential campaign. 

Given the flexibility of the constitutional rule on the timing of the appointment of a vice-president, it is surprising that no party has nominated a vice presidential candidate to build more of a team campaign. 

There are three important reasons why political parties in Turkey should incorporate vice-presidential nominees into their election strategy. The first reason is purely practical. The time for campaigning is very short - less than two months - and opposition parties have only very limited media and financial support. 

If campaigning were to start tomorrow, each candidate should visit about one-and-a-half provinces every day, in order to visit all 81 provinces. This is not realistic.

The incumbent president, able to use official aircraft and helicopters, will not face the same challenge. But for the opposition, it is a serious concern. Nevertheless, if there are vice-presidential candidates, more ground can be covered through a division of labour. Research shows this type of strategy is very common in U.S. elections.

The second reason is political/tactical. Opposition parties may signal to voters that the running mates would build a system of mutual understanding and collaboration once in office. This may appeal voters unhappy with the current system where Erdoğan has power to single-handedly decide on a wide range of issues down to the number of foreign players allowed in professional football teams and the legality of tinted car windows.

The third reason is ideological and possibly the most important. Given the fragmented nature of the opposition in Turkey, it is not easy to find a single person who can unite those against the government. These disparate groups include secularists, nationalists, religious conservatives, pro-Kurdish people, and so on. 

Looking at the possible candidates discussed in the media for the last two weeks, it seems there is no single person who can appeal to all the opposition groups. However, each party can maximise its appeal by nominating two individuals who might have the potential to attract different ideological groups.

There are several examples in the United States where presidential candidates have selected a running mate in order to complement their own background. The most recent example is Donald Trump’s selection of Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate in 2016 in order to win the votes of the Republican Party’s religiously conservative support base. 

Similar strategies might be pursued in Turkey. To begin with, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) could nominate a presidential candidate likely to attract its core secularist supporters, but a vice-presidential candidate who might appeal to religiously conservative voters. The CHP’s presidential candidate could focus on campaigning in the more secular western provinces, while the vice presidential candidate could visit the eastern provinces where voters are more conservative.

Similarly, the nationalist Good Party leader and presidential candidate Meral Akşener potentially appeals to many secular and/or nationalist voters, but may want to name a vice-presidential candidate who might attract religious voters. Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of the Felicity Party, might be a good match. 

Of course, if a party decides to follow this campaign strategy, the running mates need to closely coordinate and agree on key campaign promises. If that happens, then the electoral prospects of a party with a presidential and vice-presidential candidate will be significantly higher than one without.