Turkey’s election, and democracy's shadow

The third successive victory of Turkey’s ruling party confirms its domination of the country’s political landscape. But a close study of the AKP's evolving methods of rule reinforces grave doubts about the direction of Turkish democracy, says Gareth Jenkins.
Gareth Jenkins
21 June 2011

In the general election of 12 June 2011, Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) won a third successive term in power, taking nearly half of the popular vote and 326 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament. The result is a personal triumph for prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for nearly a decade.

But it is debatable whether, as AKP officials enthusiastically proclaimed in the days following the polls, it is also a “victory” for what they describe as their party’s commitment to “advanced democracy”. Indeed, there are reasons to fear that, far from advancing democracy in Turkey, the size and nature of the AKP’s electoral victory could accelerate democracy’s continuing retreat.

The campaign ambition

The victor in the election of 12 June 2011 was never in doubt. In recent years, there has been a marked consolidation in Turks’ voting preferences. The once large number of floating voters has dwindled in favour of greater allegiance to a particular political party. All of the main opinion polls suggested on the eve of the election that the AKP would win with 45%-50%. The only question was whether it would secure enough seats in parliament to be able to draft its own constitution. Under Turkish law, a new constitution can be promulgated through parliament if it is supported by 367 of the assembly’s members. If it has the support of 330 deputies, then it can be put to a public referendum.

Nobody doubts that Turkey’s current constitution, which was promulgated in 1982 during a period of military rule, needs to be overhauled. The issue is what will come in its place. Since the referendum over constitutional amendments in September 2010, Erdogan has repeatedly made it clear that he believes that the new constitution should include a transition from a parliamentary system to one in which political power is concentrated in the office of the presidency; after which he plans to have himself elected president for two successive five year-terms.

Turkey has an exceptionally high electoral threshold of 10%. As a result, Erdogan’s hopes of being able to draft a tailor-made constitution depended not so much on the AKP’s own vote as on the performance of the main opposition parties: the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and, particularly, the Turkish ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which opinion-polls suggested was running at 11%-12%. As a result, the AKP’s election campaign was built on targeting the MHP; its leaders instructed AKP supporters to do whatever was necessary to drive the MHP below 10%.

From reform to regression

After it first came to power in November 2002, the AKP pushed through a series of democratising reforms in order to meet the criteria for the opening of European Union accession negotiations. The changes also served to weaken the power of the secular Kemalist establishment, particularly the Turkish military, which had overshadowed Turkish politics for more than forty years (during which time it had overthrown four elected governments).

In 2007, after a clumsy attempt by the then chief-of-staff General Yasar Büyükanit to prevent the AKP foreign minister Abdullah Gül from being appointed to the currently largely titular position of president, Erdogan called an early general election. This was held on 22 July 2007, and resulted in a landslide victory for the AKP with 46.6% of the popular vote. Gül was appointed president in August 2007. In March 2008, the other bastion of the Kemalist establishment, the higher echelons of the judiciary, made a similarly clumsy attempt to ban the AKP on the grounds that it was trying to eradicate secularism. This too was unsuccessful.  

Büyükanit’s failure to prevent Gül from becoming president demonstrated what many in the military already knew: namely that the generals’ once irresistible political power had diminished to the point where it was little more than bluster. Nor, although they remained an irritant, were the Kemalists in the higher echelons of the judiciary able to assert their control over the government. Thus, through late 2008 and 2009, did the AKP begin to realise - gradually at first, but then increasingly - that, for the first time since the 1950s, Turkey had a government which was not only in office but also in power. Freed from the fear of a military intervention, it was the first real opportunity for the AKP to prove the sincerity of its avowed commitment to democratic values. The results have been alarming.   

Corruption and nepotism - always a problem in Turkish politics - accelerated and became more blatant. The AKP resisted pressure from the EU to make the awarding of public contracts transparent. State banks provided soft loans to enable AKP supporters to buy out the second largest media group in the country. The largest, the Dogan Group, was hit with over $2.5 billion in tax fines. In an attempt to avoid bankruptcy, the group immediately began to tone down its criticism of the AKP and to dismiss its most outspoken columnists.  

Even more disturbing has been what has come to be known as the Ergenekon investigation. By June 2011, over 300 actual or suspected opponents of the government had been charged with membership of a terrorist organisation called Ergenekon, which is allegedly dedicated to the use of violence to try to destabilise the AKP. The investigation has been deeply flawed from the onset, riddled with abuses of due process and absurd conspiracy theories; and no convincing evidence has yet been produced that the organisation exists, much less that the accused are members.

The critics of the case allege that it is being run by pro-AKP elements in the police force, particularly followers of the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. But voicing such claims publicly has meant risking threats, smear campaigns and - for people ranging from a respected police chief to left-wing journalists - arrest and imprisonment on charges of belonging to Ergenekon. Most Turkish journalists, faced with the twin threats of tax-fines and imprisonment, now (unsurprisingly) exercise self-censorship.

More flagrant has been what has become known as the Sledgehammer investigation, which was launched in January 2010. It claims that a cabal of military officers drew up a plan to stage a coup in 2003. The evidence that the documents on which the claims are based are forgeries is clear and irrefutable. But no attempt been made to identify the culprits; and even worse, over 200 serving and retired officers have been arrested and imprisoned in pursuit of the “investigation”.  

The last throw

It was in this context that the general election was called for 12 June 2011. The last date for the submission of the parties’ candidate-lists was 25 April 2011. Two days after the deadline, two secretly-recorded videos showing MHP candidates engaging in extra-marital sexual relations were broadcast on the internet. Over the next four weeks, eight other MHP candidates suffered a similar fate. The videos had all been recorded on cameras hidden in private houses; something that would have required considerable resources in terms of personnel and expertise. But the police made little attempt to trace those responsible. Instead, in campaign rallies, Erdogan rigorously exploited the videos, claiming that they proved the MHP’s immorality and thus its unfitness to govern.

On 18 May 2011, Erdogan delivered a speech in which he warned of the consequences if people did not show him sufficient respect, noting that a general who had not stood up for him in March 2004 was now “paying the price”. The reference was to Lieutenant-General Engin Alan, who is currently in prison on charges of complicity in the alleged Sledgehammer plot.

At an election rally on 1 June 2011, Erdogan announced that there was an audio-tape of two Kurdish nationalists discussing whether to tell their supporters to try to reduce the AKP’s representation in parliament by voting for the MHP. The recording duly appeared on the internet two hours later. Under Turkish law, secretly bugging a private conversation without a court order is a criminal offence; as is publicising its contents when made with a court order. Erdogan made no attempt to explain how the secret recording of his political opponents had come into his possession.

On 12 June 2011, the AKP won 49.9% of the vote and 326 seats, ahead of the CHP with 25.9% and 135 seats, and the MHP with 13.0% and fifty-three seats. The remaining thirty-six seats were won by a bloc led by the pro-Kurdish Peace & Democracy Party (BDP), whose members had run as independents to overcome the 10% threshold.

An authoritarian turn?

The election results were greeted with relief by many who had been alarmed by the prospect of the AKP singlehandedly drafting a new constitution. Further reassurance came in the form of Erdogan’s declarations after the polls that the AKP would consult with the parliamentary opposition during the drafting of a new, more liberal constitution. But there are three reasons to suggest that such optimism is misplaced.

First, Erdogan made a similar vow after the 2007 election, promising to serve equally those who had voted for the AKP and those who had not; although the reality of the last four years has been very different. Indeed, on 12 September 2010, the AKP put a package of twenty-six amendments to the existing constitution to a referendum. Most of the proposed changes were genuinely liberalising. However, the AKP bundled them together with more controversial measures which would increase the government’s control over the higher echelons of the judiciary. The reforms were duly approved by a margin of 57.9% to 42.1%. The changes for the judiciary were implemented almost immediately, with the result that the higher echelons are now controlled by AKP-appointees. None of the other truly liberalising amendments have yet been implemented.

Second, even if Erdogan does initiate a process of consultation with the opposition parties, the latter are all vehemently opposed to at least some of his key demands - not least his desire for a presidential system. It is difficult to see how an agreement could be reached. It is possible that, after going through the motions of consultation, the AKP will attempt to persuade individual members of the opposition to defect to the government and give it the 330 seats that it needs.  

Third, and perhaps most important, is the question of whether the letter of the law is still relevant in modern Turkey. All of the abuses which have characterised the AKP’s growing authoritarianism are illegal under Turkey’s existing laws and constitution. But they are still occurring. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the AKP’s election victory is not that it won but that it increased its vote. Although he will have been disappointed not to have secured 330 seats, Erdogan will also have noted that his growing authoritarianism has not lost him any public support. At a time when he is increasingly disinclined to listen to admonitions from the international community, including the European Union, Erdogan would appear to have little incentive to be any less authoritarian over the years ahead. 

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