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Birol Baskan
Birol Baskan
Birol Baskan currently teaches at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar.
Turkey at the ballot box: What is at stake?
The result of Turkey's vote is not in doubt but the parliamentary arithmetic holds crucial consequences for the country.
Last Modified: 08 Jun 2011 17:32
A new constitution for Turkey is Erdogan's top priority for the party's anticipated third term. [EPA]

Turkey is heading towards elections. Opinion polls overwhelmingly predict that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the incumbent prime minister, is about to win another term in office. Actually, the signals for this victory came in September 2010 when Erdogan won a much more challenging battle.

In a controversial referendum on constitutional changes, Erdogan almost single-handedly defeated some 20-odd political leaders who opposed the amendments his government suggested. Since then, the opposition has been too demoralised to wage a successful campaign to tarnish Erdogan's political invincibility. In fact, Erdogan has been so confident about his political fortunes that his election campaign set forth objectives for Turkey to be realised by 2023, the year the modern republic will mark the 100th year since its birth.

The polls predict, and it is not a wild prediction, that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) will get around 45 per cent of the votes. This will be enough for Erdogan to form a single-party government.

Having been in power for the last eight years, his government is unlikely to introduce wild changes in many policy areas. In the provision of main public services, such as education, health and redistribution of wealth and income, for example, Erdogan's government will continue to pursue the same double strategy: the government will work to improve the quality of services provided by state institutions, on the one hand, and will facilitate the growth of private sector and non-governmental organisations in these fields, on the other.

In foreign policy too, Turkey will most likely pursue the same dynamic and pro-active policy, and continue to involve itself in regional issues. The chief architect of that policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, will be in the parliament as an AKP deputy in the new parliamentary season, but it is unlikely that this will bring any serious change in Turkish foreign policy.

Party politics

Even though the AKP will surely emerge victorious from the elections, the results are still consequential. In particular, how the two main opposition parties fare will have critical repercussions for Erdogan in his third term.

 

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) will enter the elections under its new leader, Kemal Kilicdarolglu. Even though not appreciated enough, Kilicdaroglu has already brought an enormous change in Turkish politics by radically changing the CHP's political discourse.

The previous CHP leader, Deniz Baykal, used to rest his election campaign on an intangible fear element, accusing Erdogan of undermining the secular pillars of the Turkish Republic. Even though this accusation reflected the deep-seated fears of some groups in Turkey, it did not help the CHP expand its vote base beyond those who voted for the party anyway.

Kilicdaroglu dropped this discourse, and instead began to criticise the AKP on much more tangible issues such as corruption, poverty and income inequality. Under Kilicdaroglu's leadership, the CHP is thus seeking to become the true social democratic party that Turkish politics has long desperately needed. We are yet to see how the voters will reward Kilicdaroglu for this transition. If Kilicdaroglu can increase his party's vote share to the 30 to 35 per cent range, which is not unlikely, Erdogan will face a tougher and more confident opposition leader in the new parliament. This is going to be a welcome development.

How the other main opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), fares in the elections will have more serious consequences for Erdogan in his third term. The MHP has recently gone through a troubled period. The party in fact has long suffered from an existential problem, its raison d'etre being reduced to objecting and blocking all attempts to solve Kurdish issues.

Surpassing the threshold

As the AKP has introduced changes once considered taboo in Turkish politics, the MHP has turned into a status quo party. The party offers no solution to the Kurdish problem and appears quite populist and banal on other issues. Furthermore, shortly after the party started its election campaign, a website published sex tapes of several high-ranking party members.

The scandalous tapes have raised serious questions about whether the party will achieve the 10 per cent vote share to enter the parliament. A broad sector of anti-AKP voters now fears that the failure of the MHP to cross this threshold, would give the AKP too much parliamentary power, allowing it to single-handedly amend the existing constitution.

In order to avoid this unwelcome scenario, many anti-AKP voters may tactically vote for the MHP and help the party pass the 10 per cent electoral threshold. In this scenario, the leader of the MHP, Devlet Bahceli, would join Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the new parliamentary session, and leave Erdogan facing a much tougher opposition.

Most significantly, if the MHP passes the 10 per cent electoral threshold, the new parliament could effectively block the AKP's plans for reform to improve the quality of Turkish democracy. Erdogan has promised during the election campaign that his government will press ahead with democratisation reforms in the new parliament.

Under AKP governments, Turkey has already made non-negligible progress toward liberal democracy. A prominent Washington DC-based international non-governmental organisation, Freedom House, also acknowledged this progress, and improved Turkey's scores for both political and civil rights, which has been a painfully slow progress.

 

There is still a long way to go in order for Turkey to become a full liberal democracy. For example, AKP supporters like to point out that Turkey's military is no longer as influential as it used to be. Indeed, there is no question that the military's influence over politics has systematically waned in the last eight years.

But, this seems to be circumstantial, its sustainability being contingent on Erdogan's popularity. The institutional mechanisms are still left intact: in some near future, if the elections do not produce a leader as popular, the military may re-exert its influence over politics. Moreover, full civilian control over the armed forces are yet to be established as the military is still pretty much a self-regulating and self-running state institution.

The problem is in large part constitutional. The existing constitution, drafted by the military and introduced in 1982, is rather long, having some 170 articles, and structures the political system in great detail. The constitution acknowledges many democratic political and civil rights and freedoms for citizens, but also introduces loopholes which help the Turkish state curtail those rights and freedoms if necessary.

The constitution defines the nature of the Turkish state in quite general terms and forbids any change that will contradict the nature of that state, as understood by the military and the judiciary. It should be noted that these are not inconsequential features. The solution to the Kurdish "problem", for example, requires a full-scale amendment of these parts of the constitution.

In a parliament with much more powerful CHP and MHP components, Erdogan would definitely not be in a position to amend the constitution without taking it to a referendum. Even though a referendum is a way out of potential parliamentary deadlocks, Erdogan may not want to take another risky venture.

'Parliamentary arithmetic'

Seemingly aware of the potential problems with the tiresome process of constitutional amendments, Erdogan promises instead a whole new constitution. In fact, the new constitution will be at the top of the AKP agenda in the new term. In a recent interview with a prominent Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, Erdogan said, crafting "a new constitution is going to be the step we will take in the first stage". But, he cautiously added, "this is an issue contingent on parliamentary arithmetic".

Technically speaking, parliamentary arithmetic will have no bearing on the issue. The existing constitution describes the procedure of constitutional amendment, but not the procedure of replacing the constitution with a new one. There are historical precedents, however. In 1958, for example, Charles de Gaulle spearheaded such a replacement in France, inaugurating the Fifth Republic.

This is indeed going to speed up Turkey's historical move toward liberal democracy. But, it is not going to be an easy task. In fact, it may prove the toughest task Erdogan has ever undertaken. To overcome parliamentary opposition, Erdogan must reach out to the broadest possible sector of Turkish society, intensely involve them in the preparation of a civilian constitution and then subject the resulting text to a referendum.

The problem is that, as the MHP leader Bahceli has said, Erdogan is not specific about the content of the new constitution he dreams of. From one perspective, this is desirable, as it could mean that Erdogan is not going to impose a text on the others, but rather will engage them.

To do the latter, however, Erdogan has to go beyond himself by adopting a whole new style of leadership. The question is not whether Erdogan can do this or not - I believe, he can. The question becomes how seriously Erdogan really wants to do this.

It did not escape the attention of many that in the same interview with Birand, Erdogan justified the very 10 per cent electoral threshold that blocks the entry of a political party which has a large following in the Kurdish region - a sign perhaps that Turkey's prime minister is not yet ready to compromise with his political opponents.

Birol Baskan currently teaches at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar. His book, Crescent and the State, is forthcoming from Syracuse University Press. Baskan thanks Dr Omur Aydin of Istanbul University for clarifying how AKP can introduce a new constitution.

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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