|Turkish GDP per capita has trebled to more than $10,000 under Erdogan's stewardship [Reuters]
A platform of unprecedented economic growth and greater regional influence should propel the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a third term in parliamentary elections on June 12.
But 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.
Erdogan’s AKP, in power since 2002, is expected to win a third consecutive term with upwards of 40 per cent of the vote, according to opinion polls, and form a majority government with around 300 MPs out of 550.
Whereas European countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain are struggling with debt crises and sluggish economies, in 2010 Turkey became the fastest growing economy in Europe with 8.9 per cent GDP growth. Since 2002, GDP per capita tripled from $3,500 to $10,079. This economic achievement has allowed Ankara to follow a more assertive foreign policy.
Under AKP rule, Turkey’s foreign policy, based on foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategy of “zero problems with neighbours”, sought to establish improved diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with all neighbouring countries.
Ankara initiated visa-free travel with countries in the region from Russia to Libya, and increased trade with its neighbours from $5 billion in 2002 to $16 billion in 2010. During the ‘Arab Spring’, Turkey has been a source of inspiration for the masses in the Middle East due to its political stability and democracy. But there is also a dark side to this rosy picture.
Over the past four years, several hundred journalists, academics, politicians and military officers have been jailed as part of an investigation dubbed ‘Ergenekon’, allegedly a secret secular nationalist organisation with the objective of toppling the AKP government.
Whereas Erdogan portrays the investigation as a crucial step in eliminating the military’s traditional tutelage over Turkish democracy, opposition parties accuse the AKP government of manipulating Ergenekon to silence opposition in politics and the media.
At present, 57 journalists are in prison in Turkey and, according to international press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 138th among 178 countries, only two steps above Russia. Some of the arrested suspects have been in jail for years without charge, raising concerns about the emergence of civil authoritarianism and the ‘Putinisation’ of Turkey.
One of the latest issues that has further polarised relations between the government and the opposition is the resignation of 10 senior politicians of the Turkish nationalist party, the MHP, as a result of the release of videos portraying them engaging in extramarital affairs.
According to the opposition, this alleged smear campaign and illegal tapings required long-term planning and sophisticated surveillance that could only have been orchestrated by the government’s security and intelligence services.
The leader of the MHP, Devlet Bahceli, pointed the finger at the religious Gulen movement, whose followers support the AKP government and are believed to dominate the police forces.
According to recent polls, the MHP’s share of the vote is around 13 per cent. The impact of the sex scandal could therefore be decisive on June 12 if the party slips below the 10 per cent threshold for a party to enter parliament – the highest in Europe.
In that eventuality, the MHP would find itself out of parliament and most of its 72 seats would be absorbed by the AKP. That would allow Erdogan to form the super-majority required to change the constitution and transform the political system from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.
Last year, the leader of the main opposition party, Deniz Baykal, also resigned after a video was released showing him in an affair with a female member of parliament from his party. That sex scandal brought Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who was born in the reclusive eastern Anatolian city of Tunceli, populated by Kurds and Alevis, into the leadership of the secularist and nationalist CHP, which was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
During the past year, Kilicdaroglu purged hardline Kemalists from the party and moved the CHP from a reactionary political line defending secularism against the “growing Islamic threat” of the AKP to a more liberal stance. Kilicdaroglu promised to end the suppression of the press and grant more political and cultural rights to the Kurds.
Moreover, by pledging a family insurance scheme that would distribute $350 per month to low income families, the CHP aimed to increase its electoral appeal. The CHP’s election slogan of “Turkey will breathe freely” reflects the fundamental change introduced by Kilicdaroglu’s leadership. The CHP is expected to win 30 per cent of the votes, signalling almost a 50 per cent increase on its 21 per cent share of the vote in 2007.
The fourth important political actor is the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The BDP has declared its support for 61 candidates – each standing as an independent to circumvent the 10 per cent party threshold - and is expecting to have at least 30 of them elected to parliament.
The opening of Turkey’s first state-run Kurdish television and mushrooming private Kurdish television and radio reveal a more relaxed environment for Kurds compared to the repressive years of the 1990s. However, there are still numerous thorny issues such as the demand to move PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, in custody since 1999, from prison to house arrest, the question of greater autonomy for the Kurdish region, and education in the Kurdish language.
Turkish politics will be probably more polarised 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.
Dr Behlul Ozkan currently teaches at Mamara University in Istanbul. His book, From the Abode of Islam to Turkish Vatan, will be published by Yale University Press in 2012.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.