Turkish Elections: Key Issues

Plans for a new constitution, Kurdish rights and Turkey's economic strength among campaign trail talking points.

    Supporters of the Labour, Freedom and Democracy Platform rally in Istanbul [Reuters]

    Turkish voters go to the polls in parliamentary elections on June 12, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP seeking a third straight term of office. Read on for summaries of some of the main issues being discussed on the campaign trail.


    Buoyed by its success in a 2010 referendum on a series of constitutional amendments, the AKP has pledged, if re-elected, to introduce a "constitution of the people", replacing the present document introduced in 1982 under military rule.

    A new document would be "short, compact, open, focused on the individual, and committed to freedom," Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan says. But Erdogan’s critics express concern that the prime minister's commitment to constitutional reform is borne more of personal ambition, suggesting that he plans to introduce a presidential system of government, culminating in his own election to the top job. CHP leader Kemal K?l?cdaroglu has accused the AKP of "despotic tendencies".

    The CHP also promises extensive constitutional change, including greater rights for Kurds and Alevis, reinforced press freedoms, limits on the power of the military and a reduction in the 10 per cent election threshold. "We will bring democracy and freedom to the country," party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said at the launch of his party's manifesto. The nationalist MHP opposes the AKP's ambitions for constitutional change, while the BDP would introduce a constitution promoting Kurdish and minority rights and greater regional autonomy. 


    The AKP's economic stewardship in nearly a decade in power is the central pillar of its campaign for re-election. A country once synonymous with hyperinflation and fiscal chaos shrugged off the global financial crisis to become the world’s 17th largest economy with growth last year of 8.9 per cent.


    A decade-long building boom looks set to continue with Erdogan pledging to build a new canal for Istanbul to allow ships to bypass the Bosphorus, as well as two new earthquake-proof cities for the region's ever-expanding population.

    Still, critics say widespread prosperity has been at the expense of greater inequality between rich and poor, while migration from the countryside has created urban unemployment and poverty. Some say a current account deficit approaching eight per cent of GDP, fuelled by a spending boom, is a debt crisis in waiting.

    The CHP has drawn attention to youth unemployment, which stands at 20 per cent - almost double the national joblessness rate - and even higher for university graduates. It says job creation programmes for young people are the "main axis" of its plans to cut unemployment to six per cent.

    The 'Kurdish problem' 

    The AKP has stepped back from its earlier commitments to increase cultural rights for Turkey’s 14 million Kurds, which included establishing Kurdish language media and university departments in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, winning it widespread support in the region four years ago. Early in the campaign, Erdogan said there was "no longer a Kurdish problem".

    Meanwhile Turkey's army continues to battle the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), both in the southeast and Northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, prompting periodic protests around the funerals of slain fighters in Diyarabakir, the main city in the southeast.

    The CHP has instead emerged as the mainstream party offering broader rights for minorities, promising "freedom, pluralism and inclusion", but many in the southeast will back independent candidates representing the pro-Kurdish BDP.

    Meanwhile the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has threatened a renewed campaign unless the government began talks on greater Kurdish autonomy by June 15 – three days after the election. An attack in May by PKK fighters on an AKP election convoy in the Black Sea region of Kastamonu, shortly after Erdogan had addressed a rally, left one policeman dead.

    Islamism and secularism 

    Revolutions and uprising across the Middle East and North Africa have focused attention on Turkey as an example of democracy in a Muslim country. Erdogan's Islamism-rooted AKP, which styles itself as the ideological equivalent of a western European conservative Christian Democrat party, has mostly been pragmatic on issues of religion and secularism since coming to power in 2002 and insists the country will remain secular, even if it succeeds in introducing a new constitution.


    That has not prevented its opponents from accusing the ruling party of pursuing a hidden Islamist agenda. An attempt to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves at universities was rejected by Turkey's constitutional court in 2007, while a year later the party was fined and warned by the same court on charges of undermining Turkey's secular principles.

    But a new constitution could enable the AKP to revisit the headscarf issue, as well as promoting the socially conservative values held by many of its supporters.

    Still, while the CHP and the MHP have raised concerns during previous campaigns about the AKP’s Islamist origins, in this election they have preferred to focus their fire on Erdogan's constitutional ambitions.


    Regional foreign policy

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed Turkey at the heart of Middle Eastern affairs, playing to populist sentiment with a series of scathing attacks on Israel over Gaza, and forging closer ties with neighbours, such as Syria and Iraq, as part of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu's so-called "zero-problems" foreign policy.

    But the shifting politics of the Middle East have caused problems, leaving Ankara exposed by close diplomatic and business ties with regimes now considered pariahs. Turkey initially refused to participate in NATO action against Libya, with Erdogan vowing his country would "never point a gun at the Libyan people", only to later become involved in the alliance's humanitarian efforts. Erdogan also sought to position himself as a peacebroker – a role rejected by rebels, and undermined by Turkey's billions of dollars worth of contracts with Tripoli.

    Turkey has also been cautious in its response to the crisis on its border in Syria, with Erdogan warning that there could not be another Hama, the bloody quelling of a 1982 uprising, but calling Bashar al-Assad a "good friend of mine". Such vacillation has been criticised by the CHP, which accuses the AKP of allowing its foreign policy to be dictated by events, rather than guided by principles.

    European Union

    Turkey's progress towards European Union membership, once a central goal for Erdogan’s AKP which began accession talks in 2005, has stalled amid failure to find a solution to the long-running Cyprus issue, the intransigence of leading EU members including France and Germany, and fading Turkish enthusiasm for an economic bloc tarnished by the euro debt crisis which has left neighbouring Greece on the brink of collapse while Turkey is booming.

    Still, the AKP is now joined by Kilicdaroglu’s CHP in making a case for membership, with the main opposition party accusing the governing party of paying lip service to the accession process and calling the EU and NATO the "cornerstones of the Euro-Atlantic community". Many Turks have welcomed the constitutional changes, judicial reform and greater individual liberties that the government has implemented as part of the accession process.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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