And so it starts. For some hours now Turkey’s 50 million voters have been making their way to polling stations across the country to cast their ballots in another parliamentary election that must be described in pivotal. This has been the story of the AKP era in Turkey’s modern history. Each of its election victories has marked an important stage in the country’s development, for both good and ill.
When the AKP first came to power in 2002, it was a true watershed moment for the country. First and foremost, it ushered in an era of stable single-party rule that has altered in important ways what this electorate believes it can expect from its politicians. The country was scarred by the years of ineffective coalitions during the 1990s, which culminated in a profound economic collapse. The AKP continues to benefit from the sense that it provided the country with an alternative to that kind of ad hoc back-of-an-envelope governance.
Of course, the AKP ushered in more than single-party stability. The party broke the mould by articulating a form of religiously informed politics which many non-religious voters deemed sufficiently moderate to countenance supporting. This moderation has wavered in the years since, but the party continues to benefit from the votes of citizens who are more interested in the party’s record on bread and butter issues like the economy or health and education policy than on the role of religion in the public sphere. There’s no doubt that the AKP does God in its politicking. But it does Mammon too, with a gusto that at times borders on frenzy. Balancing these sides of the party’s identity has been an impressive political feat, and it has allowed the AKP to build a thus-far impregnable coalition of voters, drawn from very different strands of Turkish society.
The AKP’s second election victory in 2007 marked another watershed. The party’s first term was by and large a very positive one for Turkey. The country pulled itself back to its feet after economic collapse, and made significant strides in its relations with the European Union. It seems a long time ago now, but the beginning of accession negotiations was a moment of real import in this country’s history.
But it was also in these years that tensions and divisions over the AKP’s plans for Turkey began to bubble away. The total failure of the party’s political opponents to respond to its electoral advances led to the initiative shifting outside of the political realm, setting up a series of hugely damaging clashes between the AKP government and non-political state actors. First, the military tried to impose its will on the selection of a president. Second, the constitutional court tried to ban the AKP for its alleged erosion of Turkey’s secular order.
In both cases, the AKP’s opponents miscalculated badly and left the party stronger not weaker. More importantly, they triggered a response from the AKP’s leader that has been hugely damaging for Turkey and its democratic evolution. Mr Erdogan is a political bruiser, a man who is used to and who thrives on political rough and tumble. He suppressed these instincts during his first term in office, because the politics of the moment demanded a demonstration of the AKP’s capacity to govern responsibly. But one gets the sense that following the failure of the constitutional court’s closure case, Mr Erdogan decided that his position was safe enough to allow him to take the gloves off. In the years since, there has been a steady increase in the authoritarian leanings the prime minister has displayed.
Was this simply a case of Mr Erdogan’s mask slipping and his true political nature being revealed? To a significant extent, the answer must surely be yes. But I think it is intellectually dishonest not to add two caveats immediately here. The first is that authoritarianism is the default setting of Turkey’s entire political class. Mr Erdogan is not the first Turkish leader to exhibit alarming authoritarian tendencies and it is very unlikely that he will be the last. Second, the ill-considered and deeply anti-democratic provocations by the military and the constitutional court in 2007 and 2008 must be borne in mind. Yes, poking a dog repeatedly until it bites may prove that the dog in question does indeed have the capacity to bite. But it also proves that the person doing the poking is an idiot asking for trouble.
And so we come to 2011 and a set of elections that with almost total confidence we can predict will lead to another term in office for Mr Erdogan and the AKP. In some senses, the political environment is more depressing than at any time in the last decade. Mr Erdogan’s increasingly bombastic and divisive style of governing, coupled with what can only be described as his emergent delusions of grandeur, do not augur well. When combined with his relaxed dominance of the electoral field, they become alarming. These are not ideal background conditions for the drafting of a new constitution, as has been promised following the election.
That said, there are positive developments which should be acknowledged and fostered. Chief among these is the sense that the AKP’s political opponents are finally back in the game. Perhaps Mr Erdogan has inadvertently done Turkish democracy a favour here. By stamping hard on the military and the judiciary, he forced opponents of the AKP to channel their energies where it should have been channeled all along–into democratic politics and the business of persuading citizens of the merits of one political approach over another. A lot of time has been unnecessarily wasted. But in the years to come, this election is likely to be seen as the point at which the foundations were laid for an electoral defeat of the AKP. It won’t happen today. But it will happen.
What will determine the outcome of today’s elections? The broad outlines will be shaped again by the polarisation of Turkish politics, with the AKP likely to comfortably see off its various opponents, who are weakened by being so disparate. But the final result of the election, in terms of the number of seats won in parliament, will come down not to a battle of ideas or a weighing of the merits of the current government, but to the vagaries of Turkey’s deeply dysfunctional electoral system.
The number of parties that make it into parliament has a huge effect on the way the assembly’s 550 seats are distributed. With this in mind, the key thing to look for this evening when the results are announced will be the performance of the hardline nationalists in the MHP. In recent polls, they have been hovering close to the ten per cent threshold for entering parliament, and it is clear that Mr Erdogan’s increasingly harsh rhetoric has been designed in part to lure their voters away and push the party below the threshold. His incentive for doing so is equally clear: if only the AKP and CHP make it into parliament, the resulting two-way distribution of seats would lead to a greatly enhanced AKP majority. That in turn would give the party a much freer hand in terms of drafting Turkey’s new constitution.