Commentary

Debating Turkey's Upcoming Elections

Middle East In Focus

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This coming Sunday, Turkey will hold its parliamentary elections. Turkey’s two main political parties, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), will face off to determine what some believe will be the trajectory of the country’s democracy. By now it has become evident that the AKP is almost guaranteed a third consecutive term. However, the battle is being fought to prevent it from securing a two-thirds parliamentary majority and a free hand in changing the constitution.

As the secular leaning Turkish daily Sabah puts it: “The AK's success, Erdogan's dominance and the weaknesses of the opposition mean the only uncertainty really hanging over the election result is the margin of victory. But there are plenty of issues at stake in this complicated, overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 74 million people, clinging to its ambition of European Union membership. If the AK, which emerged a decade ago from banned Islamist parties, wins a two-thirds majority it would make it a lot easier for Erdogan to push through a planned new constitution.... Erdogan aims to rewrite the constitution and make a clean break with a charter written under military tutelage in 1982. He says the new charter will bolster democracy and pluralism in Turkey. Critics fear it will be an AK version of democracy. The opposition accuses the AK of having a secret agenda, and says it is taking control of all the centres of power, including, significantly, the judiciary.”

Zeynep Tolun, writing for the Gulf News catalogues the concerns and complications “Turkey faces as it counts down to one of its most important elections,” noting “the AKP remains a conservative democratic party and CHP, on the other hand, continues to uphold the military and bureaucratic guardianship despite the winds of change....Turkish democracy is undoubtedly facing two major problems. The first is the assembly that will be formed after the elections, as it will be authorized to enact the new constitution. The new assembly will be facing a very serious problem of representation due to the 10 per cent election threshold. The new assembly's ability to prepare a brand new social contract will most probably be a contentious question and even a source of conflict. The second major problem is the Kurdish issue. The politicians engaged in politics on behalf of the Kurds have never been as powerful as they are today.”

One of the main fears for many — both inside and out of Turkey — is that a third term for Erdogan and his party might spell trouble for Turkish democracy.  The New York Times, Reuters, and the Economist magazine published editorials within days of each other warning of just such a possibility and suggesting that a win for the AKP would give too strong of a hand to Prime Minister Erdogan. Murat Yetkin puts the discussion in the foreign policy context, suggesting in his op-ed on the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News: “It seems the government has taken the real message: Do not take irreversible steps with Israel at this critical stage of the “greater” Middle East in order to take a few more nationalist votes in the elections to secure 330 seats in the parliament….If Erdogan got the message that any such step could jeopardize Turkish diplomacy and security in the region, the next question becomes: What else could be a game changer in the last week for Erdogan to secure 330 seats and potentially open the gates for his presidency? That is our next question.”

However, two articles in the other Turkish daily, Today’s Zaman, are far more critical of “foreign intervention” in internal Turkish affairs. Sevgi Akarçesme opines: “An unusually partisan piece in The Economist on June 2 received quite a lot of attention, as it openly ‘recommended’ that Turkish people vote for the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) instead of the likely winner, the AK Party....The Economist article will not only be evaluated as a tactless example of an attempt to design the domestic politics of a country, but also as an insult to the millions of voters as well as the well-working parliamentary system of a country inspiring in its region. In seemingly a more sophisticated world that an average person is able to have access to information, one expects a magazine the caliber of The Economist to be more subtle and smart.”

The other article goes further, accusing The Economist of standing up for undemocratic forces in Turkey: “It is very unusual for an international journal to name a political party to be voted for in a parliamentary election. The Economist has done this, asking the people of Turkey to vote for the Republican People's Party (CHP). Is this a joke or a plot against the CHP? Yes, I do mean ‘a plot against the CHP,’ though many supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) would argue that it is their party that has been targeted….Do the editors of The Economist really think that when they point to a political party, in our case the CHP, a party that throughout its entire history — which is equal to the history of Turkey — has never won a single democratic election, the people of Turkey will listen to them and vote for the CHP?”

Others lament what they consider to be a lost opportunity for Turkey.  In a commentary on Khaleej Times, Katinka Barysch explains: “This year’s poll, scheduled for June 12, could have signaled a move toward political normality. However, a nasty sex-tape scandal and a flare-up of violence in the Kurdish southeast have not only poisoned the political atmosphere but also fueled allegations that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) wants to grab ever more power....Against the background of scandals, violence and shifting party programs, it is hard to predict whether Erdogan’s reach for a supermajority will succeed. For the sake of Turkish democracy, it would be better if it did not….Turkey does need a new, more democratic constitution. But if the AKP gains 330 of the 550 seats, it will be able to push through a constitutional draft without support from the opposition and put it straight to a referendum....A ‘one-party’ constitution would lead to further divisions in Turkey’s already-polarized political system.”

Behlul Ozkan likewise expresses concerns on Al Jazeera over the “Putinization” of Turkish politics: “An intense campaign, fought by 15 parties of which only three could end up in parliament, has been darkened by accusations over the jailing of hundreds of government opponents allegedly linked to a secret nationalist conspiracy, and concerns that the country could be drifting towards Kremlin-style authoritarian rule....Turkish politics will be probably more polarized and divisions between political parties will deepen in the run-up to Sunday’s vote. This confrontational political environment could be the major obstacle in forming the consensus needed in order to establish a new constitution after the election that would address the central issues of minority rights, freedom of the press, religious reforms, and civil-military relations.”

Regardless of the outcome, it seems that Turkey’s role in the region is bound to be consequential for Syria, Libya and other countries roiled with unrest.  As Ziya Meral puts it on the Lebanese The Daily Star, “For some observers, the Arab Spring burst the Turkish foreign policy bubble, exposing its true scope and lack of maturity....With all of the mishaps of the last few months, Turkish soft power in the region is still a point of envy for European and American policymakers, who have learned to abandon speculation that Turkey is turning its face from the West. As Turkey’s performance in the region outshines that of the European Union and the United States, there is now a silent rush by these parties to strengthen relationships with Turkey….While the developments of the last few months showed the limits of Turkish engagement in the region, they also demonstrated the pivotal place Turkey increasingly occupies in its much-troubled neighborhood. Expect to see a new wave of bold moves from Turkey after the upcoming national elections.”

 


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