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Richard Falk and Hilal Elver
Richard Falk and Hilal Elver
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University.
Celebrating the AKP victory
The AKP's success may signal a new dawn for Turkey, but challenges remain before Erdogan can take his place in history.
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2011 15:15
Erdogan's supporters hail a bright future, but many challenges lie ahead for the party and the country [GALLO/GETTY]

It is the first time since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic that such widespread international interest was aroused by Turkey's elections. Naturally, it is a time for celebration by the AKP in view of its landslide victory, a vindication of its overall economic and political approach over the past nine years. It is also an endorsement of its creative foreign policy that had given Turkey such a prominent place on regional and global diplomatic maps for the first time in its republican history.

This afterglow of electoral victory should not obscure the challenges that lie ahead for the AKP. The most important of these involve finally providing the large Kurdish minority with secure cultural and political rights that, to be trusted, would need to be vested in a new constitution. There is wide agreement in Turkey that the existing 1982 constitution, reflecting the approach taken by oppressive leaders of a military coup, needs to be replaced, but there are serious divisions among Turks with respect to the substantive content of such a new constitution. The secular opposition, as represented by the CHP, remains particularly worried about an alleged danger of the "Putinisation" of the Turkish government, if a switch is made from a parliamentary to a presidential system. More concretely, the AKP's opposition believes that Recep Tayyip Erdogan harbours authoritarian dreams which could be fulfilled if Turkey were to follow the French presidential model.

Yet there should be less worry for two main reasons. Firstly, the AKP fell well short of securing the 367 seats needed for the parliamentary supermajorities that would have allowed it to decide, on its own, the contents of a new constitution - or even of the 330 seats necessary for it to be able to write a constitution that would become the law of the land after a national referendum. Without this degree of parliamentary control, the AKP will not be able to produce a constitution without the cooperation of the other parties represented in the parliament, especially the CHP, and that bodes well - particularly if the opposition acts responsibly by offering constructive cooperation.

And secondly, in his victory speech, Erdogan went out of his way to reassure the country that constitutional reform would be a consensual process, protective of diverse lifestyles, and framed so as to achieve acceptance and justice for the entire society. At the moment of victory Erdogan seemed unexpectedly sensitive to criticism of his supposedly arrogant political style, and took the high road of moderation and humility. He seemed intent on convincing the Turkish public as a whole that he respected the secular principles that had dominated political life since the time of Ataturk, and that the country would become more pluralistic than ever in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

International reception

It is not just Turks who should welcome this AKP victory. The electoral outcome provides the Middle East with an extremely positive example of dynamic democracy at a time of unresolved internal struggles throughout the region. The steady and helpful diplomatic hand of Turkey offers an attractive alternative to anxieties and memories associated with US and European interventions and alignments in the region. Turkey is a vibrant society with a flourishing economy that has managed to follow a democratic path to political stability and an independent course in foreign policy - and that offers an inspiring example for others to follow according to their various national circumstances.

There are many uncertainties that cloud prospects for the future. Turkey faces the consequences of an unresolved bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria, including the challenge of managing a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the killing fields. There are also the risks of an escalated confrontation with Iran arising from the Israel/United States hard power response to Iran's nuclear program. This could ignite a war that would engulf the entire region with a variety of disastrous effects. In addition, the tense relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv are likely to be further stressed in coming weeks, as preparation for a Second Freedom Flotilla go forward.

Yet the sun shines brighter on the morning after these Turkish elections. Voters have affirmed an approach to Turkey's internal and international policies premised on an inclusive approach to peace, justice, and rights. To build on this mandate, and to do so in a manner that is convincing to the majority of Turkish citizens, will create progress in the country and hope for the region. There will be mistakes and setbacks, but the orientation and vision of the AKP leadership is one of the most encouraging political developments of this still young 21st century. 

The prime minister's victory address from the balcony of AKP headquarters, what he called a "mentorship speech" was the culmination of the long and steady rise of the AKP over the past decade-- from 34 per cent of the vote in 2002 to 47 per cent in 2007, and now almost 50 per cent in 2011. With some irony, this latest result did not give the AKP more seats in the parliament, due to recent changes in the electoral system decreed by the Higher Election Board, a part of the state bureaucracy known to be hostile to the AKP.

While this restructuring - hardly noticed when it took place - hurt the AKP (326 seats rather than the 341 it would have received under the old system), while it helped both the CHP (rising from 112 seats to 135), and the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) - that helped elect Kurdish independent candidates.

'Desire for consensus'

The prime minister interpreted these results sympathetically, telling the public that he heard the voice of people as demanding consensus rather than unitary power given to one party. He also tried to calm the political waters roiled by the campaign when he declared that "incendiary speeches given during the campaign should be forgotten." This is an encouraging start. There are additional hopeful signs - 74 women were elected to the parliament, significantly more than ever before.

Moreover, this parliament will be robustly diverse because of the many new faces, including the former left student leader who spent many years in jail (Ertugrul Kurkcu), several CHP members who are currently in prison, accused of anti-state activity in the Ergenekon case, and Leyla Zana, the internationally known Kurdish parliamentarian who was originally elected in 1991 and arrived in Parliament wearing a Kurdish flag bandana and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Turkish state.

After many years, some of them in jail, Zana is again in parliament. A few days ago she joked on TV: "Perhaps this time I will come with a headscarf," implying that the individual rights of each and everyone should be protected - and those who wear headscarves should not be excluded. The prime minister insisted that "all citizens will be first class," affirming that Turks, Kurds, Alevis, other minorities and ethnic groups would be equal citizens. This was a most important and welcome message to Turkish voters. As the most popular leader in the Middle East, Erdogan did not forget to send a message to the other peoples of the region, mentioning many cities by name, including places in occupied Palestine, suggesting rather dramatically that these places will be considered with the same favour as Turkish cities. This display of internationalism was new in Turkish politics, and signifies the rise of Turkey as a diplomatic force beyond its borders.

Erdogan somewhat unexpectedly also recalled a dark episode in Turkey's past, specifically the venets of 1960 - when a military coup not only ousted a democratically elected government headed by the Democratic Party, but executed three of its political leaders, including the prime minister, Adnan Menderes, because it dared to challenge the supremacy of the military by reducing its budget. As with the AKP, the Menderes leadership had governed Turkey for three consecutive terms, winning elections by overwhelming majorities. Erdogan was conveying his sense that the struggle to achieve Turkish democracy was long and painful.  He was also indirectly reminding his audience that the "deep state" was no longer in a position to frustrate the will of the people. All in all, the message was upbeat as befits an electoral victory of this magnitude.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009). 

He is currently serving his fourth year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

Hilal Elver is Research Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Co-Director of the Climate Change Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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