politics : culture : economics

Gauging the likely impact of Sunday’s election in Turkey

In 2011 general election, Constitution, Kurdish question, Party politics on June 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Ahead of Turkey’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, Yigal Schleifer, who maintains the must-read Istanbul Calling blog, is making a guest appearance here to answer a number of my questions about the likely impact of the poll. In return, you’ll find my responses to a series of Yigal’s questions over on Istanbul Calling.

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Q1. Assuming for the moment that the election results in another AKP victory, do you think we’ll see the party consolidate its power, or will we see its hold on power loosen as a combination of fatigue and events (notably the economy) start to take their toll?

What I find striking about this election is how after nine years in government the AKP has moved decidedly from being the underdog who came to power and won elections through fighting the established state order to now becoming the big state itself. While in 2002 and 2007 the party ran on a platform that emphasized the injustices committed against its leadership (Erdoğan’s jailing, the military’s “e-coup” attempt to derail Abdullah Gül’s presidential bid) and the need for increased democracy to fight such injustices, this time around their main selling point is a series of “crazy” infrastructure projects for Turkey—everything from a massive canal that would link the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea to what is promised to be the Middle East’s “largest zoo” in Ankara.

In that sense, there are serious challenges that lay ahead for the AKP. While a third consecutive electoral victory is an admirable achievement, particularly in the Turkish context, the party will now have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of corruption, mismanagement and cronyism that has claimed previous Turkish governments as its victim. An argument can also be made that after nine years of extraordinary good fortune on the political and economic front, the AKP could also find itself facing a different and less sunny environment. Clearly there are some troubling economic facts that the government will have to deal with right after the elections. Events in the Middle East, especially in Syria, and developments on the Kurdish front are also presenting the AKP with new challenges that could make its life much more difficult. Meanwhile, the recent scandal over alleged cheating during the state-administered academic exams and the protests over the AKP’s plan to institute an internet filtering regime, both of which led to vocal protests, could be seen as early indicators that the government is losing some of its touch in the domestic arena.

Q2. Assuming once again that there’s an AKP victory, what will this election mean for the prime minister, Mr. Erdoğan, personally? 

Clearly, with what is going to be his third straight electoral victory, PM Erdoğan should be considered among the giants of modern Turkish politics, perhaps even only second to Atatürk in terms of his influence and the kind of change he has presided over in Turkey. But, like for the party itself, the case could be made that this election could be something of a highpoint for Erdoğan. Clearly his governing style is facing increasing criticism domestically and, more significantly, from new quarters abroad that had previously been rather bullish on Erdoğan and the AKP. The bruising campaign that he ran, which saw him employ a very nationalist tone to woo MHP voters and take several steps back from some of the positive things has had said earlier on the Kurdish issue, seemed to also do a lot of damage to the PM’s reputation, especially among liberal Turks who had previously supported him and his fight against the military and Turkey’s illiberal established order.

Erdoğan’s desire to create, via a new constitution, a presidential system that would allow him to continue being Turkey’s most powerful politician for another decade, is also raising concerns about his commitment to true democratization in Turkey and about an AKP power grab. Again, looking at the no-holds-barred campaign Erdogan ran, in which he burned many bridges in what appeared to be an attempt to win enough seats so that the AKP will be able change the constitution on its own, only seemed to strengthen the notion that the prime minister was more interested in consolidating power than unifying a polarized nation.

Q3. What does the CHP need to achieve in order to be able to consider this election a success?

This is clearly a make-or-break election for the CHP and its new leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, if the party wants to become a serious alternative to the AKP. That party is on the path towards reforming itself after its several years in the wilderness under the leadership of Deniz Baykal, but it still has a long way to go. In order to strengthen Kılıçdaroğlu’s hand and that of the party’s reformers, the CHP needs to win close to 30 percent of the vote. This will show that the party can attract a good number of those liberals that had previously voted for the AKP because of the democratization issue and the perception that it was the better party to push that issue forward, and that the party has a mandate to continue its current evolution under Kılıçdaroğlu.

Q4. How high are the stakes in terms of the forthcoming rewriting of the constitution? Is the election result (for example, the difference between AKP polling above or below a two-thirds super-majority) likely to have a significant impact on the substance of the new constitution that gets drafted?

The stakes are incredibly high. Turkey obviously needs a new, civil-minded constitution. The problem is that there has been little consultation between the various stakeholders and political players in Turkey about what that constitution should look like. On top of that, the issue of introducing a French-style presidential system via the new constitution is incredibly divisive. In that sense, this election is really about whether the AKP will get above 330 seats, which will allow it to pass a new constitution and then put it forward for approval in a national referendum (if it got 367 seats, the party could pass the constitution outright, although that might be a less realistic goal). If it gets above 330 seats, the party could very well repeat the experience of last year’s referendum on a constitutional reform package, which saw the AKP pass the changes with little consultation and then sending it to a national vote, knowing that it had a good chance of winning that vote.

Logic would dictate that if the AKP gets less than 330 seats, then this would require the party to work with the other factions in parliament to draft a constitution that is more representative of their demands. But there are serious questions about if this kind of consultative process is possible in the current polarized political atmosphere of Turkey. While all the parties in the country might agree that there is a need for a new constitution, there is little evidence right now that they know how to work with each other and that the leading political personalities have the will to bridge the divide that exists between them.

Q5. What effect is this election campaign likely to have on the prospects for progress on the Kurdish question?

I think the Kurdish issue will emerge as a very significant one after the election. As mentioned before, Erdoğan took several steps back on the Kurdish front during this campaign (despite a visit to southeast Turkey’s Diyarbakır, where he promised several “crazy” projects for that city). The government’s “Kurdish opening,” after raising the hopes of Kurds that serious political changes are in the works, has also been floundering and was put aside for the sake of the campaign. The question now is how does the government pick up the shattered pieces and start the process of the “Kurdish opening” anew? The Kurdish demands—increased political and cultural autonomy, decentralization of the Turkish state, public education in the Kurdish language—are clear. What is less clear is how much of the political capital it will gain in this election will the AKP be willing to spend on the Kurdish issue and on meeting demands that they might have a hard time selling to the rest of Turkey (and even to themselves)?

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  1. This is really excellent, you guys. Thanks

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