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Ilter Turan
Ilter Turan
Ilter Turan is a professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul.
Carte blanche for Erdogan but can he deliver?
It remains to be seen whether Erdogan's good intentions on tolerance and inclusiveness translate into concrete policies.
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2011 10:13
Hard work ahead: Erdogan at his desk, under a portrait of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But his next term in office could see sweeping changes to the country [REUTERS]

After more than a month of intense campaigning, Turkey has cast its verdict, handing a major victory to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Literally, one in every two voters cast their ballot for the prime minister's party as it increased its share of the vote for the third election in a row – a noteworthy achievement in democratic societies these days, where officeholders cannot usually escape the corrosive effects of being in power.

For several reasons, the outcome of this election was seen to be more critical than usual. In short, Sunday's vote may have been one of the more important in recent Turkish political history. 

Firstly, the Republican People's Party (CHP), the major opposition, had undergone a leadership change. The new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, had engaged in a strenuous effort to transform the traditionally state-oriented secularist party into a more pragmatic social democratic party, in the tradition of Western Europe.

Kilicdaroglu had brought in new personalities and developed a research team that had begun to produce policy proposals, such as giving a monthly stipend to those without income to replace the donations in kind of various social assistance programs.

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And he had taken the campaign to town squares in Turkey, displaying an activism lacking in his predecessor. The elections constituted the opportunity to test whether the changes could reverse the CHP's declining fortunes.

Furthermore, the former lack of a credible opposition, one that could be envisaged as offering a genuine alternative, was an Achilles' heel of Turkish democracy. The elections would give an indication as to whether a critical shortcoming of Turkey's democracy was being remedied.

Secondly, all parties, as well as voters, seemed to agree that Turkey needed a new constitution. The contents of the new constitution would naturally be closely affected by the particular distribution of seats that would emerge at the end of the elections.

The Turkish constitution entertains two methods for its own reform: a two-thirds majority of the whole house (367 deputies) can change the constitution directly, while a three-fifths majority (330 deputies) can accept changes and submit them to a public referendum for ratification.

Erdogan had made it clear that he favoured converting the current parliamentary arrangement into some kind of presidential system. Therefore, if his party won more than the 330 seats, it was expected that he would proceed to reshape the system along presidential lines.

'Kurdish problem'

Thirdly, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) had been demanding the recognition of Kurdish ethnicity in the administrative and educational system in Turkey's southeast. Turkey's nationalists, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the CHP had not been active in the provinces with significant Kurdish populations.

Consequently, Erdogan's AKP constituted the only effective rival to the BDP. It countered the BDP's assertions of ethnicity by mobilising common history, common religion and common tradition arguments.

Earlier, the AKP had initiated a less than successful "Kurdish opening", which it chose to suspend in response to a show of force on the Turkish-Iraqi border by the armed Kurdish organisation, the PKK - and the public's reaction that found the government "too accommodating".

Thereafter, the government had hardened its line against ethnic assertiveness, with Erdogan arguing that the "Kurdish problem" had been basically solved.

The outcome of elections would show whether the AKP approach had persuaded voters that their aspirations were being best served by the government party, or whether the BDP reflected more closely the preferences of the regional population.

Finally, there were apprehensions that the MHP might not be able to achieve the ten per cent national threshold necessary to enter parliament. In such a case, not only would the distribution of parliamentary seats deviate significantly from public preferences, giving overrepresentation to the AKP and CHP, but it would also deprive the parliament of a counterweight to the potentially excessive demands of the BDP.

In the middle of the campaign, the MHP had been shaken by the appearance of compromising pictures of several members of its leadership cadre on the internet, culminating in both their resignations from their party positions and withdrawing their candidacies. It was difficult to judge how the public would react to the affair, leading to concerns that it would have negative effects on the party's votes.

AKP landslide

The results of the election have confirmed what many opinion polls had predicted - but which many observers hesitated to believe, because of a highly fluid political atmosphere and a general distrust of the polls.

The AKP has won a landslide victory, receiving an even higher percentage of the vote than in previous elections. Yet the intricacies of the electoral system, combined with the particular distribution of votes, have given fewer seats to the ruling party than in previous elections.

What do these results show? To begin with, in contrast to earlier elections, the dozen or so small parties have received no more than four per cent of the vote.

A breakdown of Turkish parliamentary seats

Many are remnants of past politics and are likely to go out of existence now. Their having been reduced to virtual non-existence at the polls means that the distribution of the vote is now better reflected in the distribution of parliamentary seats.

In earlier elections, the share of the vote of small parties that failed to pass the ten per cent threshold was substantially higher, giving those who got past the threshold a higher percentage of seats than their share of the vote.

Although represented by fewer deputies, the AKP has consolidated its place as the centre-right party in Turkish politics, with the CHP on the centre-left. The MHP is to the right. Though the BDP defies easy classification, it seems to fall more to the left than to the right. We may expect Turkish politics to occur within the framework of these four parties in the foreseeable future.

The process of adjustment of the CHP and the MHP to the widely altered socio-economic and political environment is likely to continue.

Kilicadaroglu, who had indicated that he would resign unless his party registered substantial improvement, observed that his party had added 3.5 million new votes, and that it was the only party to have increased its parliamentary representation. The outcome will enable him to bring further changes in party policy and consolidate his hold on the party.

The MHP leadership, on the other hand, is likely to come under challenge for its failure to improve its parliamentary presence. Yet, after intense fears that the party might fall under the electoral threshold, the loss of a few seats may not stand in the way of branding the survival of the party as victory.

Carte blanche

The clear-cut victory of the ruling party gives it a strong mandate, almost a carte blanche to initiate new policies in many areas that it deems appropriate.

In his post-election speech to the crowd that had gathered in front of the party headquarters in Ankara, Erdogan emphasised two themes: Turkish foreign policy would retain the regional activism that has characterised it in recent years, and that the parliament was duty bound to prepare a new constitution.

He promised that constitution making would be an inclusive process, in which not only the opposition parties but also civil society would be invited to take part. Erdogan also talked about tolerance for choice of lifestyles and a respect for the ethnically pluralistic nature of Turkish society.

Whether such references will remain good intentions, or translate into concrete policies, remains to be seen. Previous experience suggests the former, that of stating good intentions, as a distinct possibility.

Within a couple of weeks, Erdogan will have his cabinet ready. The parliament will then meet briefly to hear the government programme and give it a vote of confidence before it goes on summer recess.

It is only in October that post-election politics will begin to unfold. The intertwined issues of a new constitution and accommodating Kurdish aspirations will inevitably dominate the debate.

For the time being, the elections have brought relief. For the longer term, in view of the magnitude of the tasks that lie ahead, uncertainty looms.

Ilter Turan is a professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and no not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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