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Turkey's political opening

Gunes Murat Tezcur
24 July 2007

The Turkish parliamentary elections held on 22 July 2007 turned out to be a remarkable step towards democratic consolidation and civilian rule. The elections followed the presidential crisis of April when the military, the constitutional court, and the main opposition party prevented the candidate favoured by the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) from being the tenth president of the Republic of Turkey since its foundation in 1923. In the event, Turkish citizens turned out in large numbers to confer undisputed legitimacy to the AKP government.

Gunes Murat Tezcur is a native of Turkey who teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He is a scholar of Turkish and Iranian politics, Islam and democracy, and Shi‘a Islam.

Also by Gunes Murat Tezcur in openDemocracy:

"The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation"
(13 October 2005)

"Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom"
(23 January 2007)

"Turkey divided: politics, faith and democracy" (4 May 2007)The centre-right AKP, formed by members of an earlier and explicitly Islamist party, thus reinforces its position as the single most authoritative force in Turkish politics. It increased its share of the vote by 13% (to 47%) compared with the election of November 2002 when it was elected to office, and will control 340 of the 550 seats in parliament (a slight reduction thanks to the niceties of voting distribution). If now it can translate its popular mandate into a concerted project of political reform, Turkey may emerge as the only Muslim-majority country in the middle east where secularism and democracy coexist. This will in turn facilitate Turkey's long-sought entry to the European Union and make the country a stabilising force in regional affairs.

The route to success

Five main factors contributed to the AKP's success:

  • *the economic stability and relative prosperity achieved since 2002 under the AKP government
  • *the military's involvement in, and the compromising of the opposition parties by, the presidential crisis
  • *the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
  • *the organisational superiority of the AKP, down to its local branches
  • *the weakness of the opposition parties.

First, the Turkish economy recovered from the worst crisis of its post-1945 history in 2001 to enjoy sustainable and moderately high growth rates in the 2002-07. The basis economic indices tell the story: foreign investment has reached unprecedented levels, the inflation rate has decreased from hundreds to single digits, export revenues have more than doubled, investment levels have soared, and privatisation of state economic enterprises has continued unabated. The problems faced by the AKP government in reducing the unemployment rate is one of the few clouds on this horizon.

Its social policies too have strongly contributed to its popular appeal. The government has distributed textbooks to students free of charge, financially supported the families of poor students, provided free health services and medicine to citizens and provided cheap credit and subsidies to farmers. AKP-controlled municipalities and state institutions have periodically delivered food and coal to families without means. These policies have consolidated the support of lower-income families to the AKP.

Second, the AKP's aborted attempt to see Erdoğan's deputy and Turkey's foreign minister Abdullah Gül elected the successor of Ahmet Necdet Sezer as the country's president also contributed to its strong showing at the ballot-box. This is confirmed by respondents both "high" and "low": "the presidential crisis helped us a lot. It silenced critics within the party, solidified and moralised our ranks, and discredited the opposition parties" (said a high-ranking AKP member); "They did not allow a 'Muslim' to be elected as president - so I will vote for Tayyip (Erdoğan) (said a peasant woman while milking a cow in the central Anatolian province of Sivas).

Also in openDemocracy's "The future of Turkey" debate:

Fred Halliday, "Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe" (16 December 2004)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning"(5 October 2005)

Daria Vaisman, "Turkey's restriction, Europe's problem" (29 September 2006)

John Palmer, "A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)
By the same token, some members of the opposition Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Action Party / MHP) and Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People's Party / CHP) parties in several Anatolian provinces protested despairingly that villagers angered by the presidential crisis would not even listen to them. Furthermore, even Turkish liberals saw in the AKP a unique chance to end the military's political hegemony that had lasted since the 1980 coup.

Third, the driving-force of the AKP's triumph was its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In pursuing an immensely energetic campaign (he addressed large crowds in mass rallies in fifty-five provinces), the charismatic link Erdoğan established with the electorate was the key element in the AKP's success. On many occasions, voters and AKP volunteers alike mentioned that public confidence in Erdoğan was the key factor. Electors did have complaints about both the party's economic policies and its fight against Kurdish guerrillas, but in the main they still believed that Erdoğan was the only leader who could deliver results. He has proved himself the most ambitious and successful leader of Turkish politics since the era of Turgut Ozal in the 1980s.

Fourth, the AKP's local branches planned and implemented a sophisticated, highly systematic vote-canvassing operation. The branches, well financed and benefiting from the fact that the AKP was in power, formed an organic link between the party and the voters; hundreds of thousands of volunteers carried the party's message to every corner of the country.

Fifth, the weakness of the opposition parties ensured that undecided and swing voters ultimately opted for the AKP. The main opposition party, the Atatürkist and centre-left CHP hoped that its mass rallies in the spring in defence of secularism and republicanism would boost its support. But none of the accusations it directed against the AKP - that it was anti-secular, soft on terrorism, and corrupt - succeeded in convincing the electorate. The CHP was also also seriously handicapped by an unpopular leader, Deniz Baykal, whose public approval rates were in single digits.

For its part, the ultra-nationalist MHP pursued a single-theme campaign: warning the voters that AKP policies would ultimately result in the division of Turkey. While this strategy helped MHP to pass the 10% threshold to qualify for seats in parliament, the party's fierce and xenophobic rhetoric did not resonate well among centrist voters.

Indeed, the Turkish electorate demonstrated an admirable degree of sophistication in this election. It found untrustworthy, for example, parties that issued wild promises such as the abolition of national university entrance fees or dramatic cuts in the price of petrol; whereas the AKP substantially augmented its share of the vote even as it largely avoided populist promises.

A golden opportunity

The 22 July elections have ushered a new era of political reform in Turkey, for two reasons. First, the new parliament will be free from the legitimacy crisis that bedevilled its predecessor. In 2002, several parties fell just short of the 10% threshold and as a result, only 55% of the valid votes were represented in parliament; this time, around 85% of the votes were translated into parliamentary seats.

Second, the AKP leadership seems committed to overhauling the entire political system. It purged almost half of its own parliamentarians whose performances it deemed unsatisfactory and replaced them with new figures, including around twenty Turkish liberals and social democrats who are set to play significant roles in guiding the party's agenda.

Among them is Ertuğrul Günay, who once failed in an attempt to become chairman of the CHP and who told an interviewer that his mission was to make social-justice issues central to the AKP's platform. The AKP is also seriously considering the enaction of a new constitution that would replace the 1982 document imposed by the then military junta. A key figure in this regard may be Zafer Üskül, a professor of constitutional law and former long-term member of the CHP. He has described his main task as facilitating the passage of a new constitution that fosters participatory and pluralistic democracy. This, if achieved, would free civilian authority from military tutelage and directly address Turkey's chronic problems of the violation of human and political rights.

It would be unrealistic, however, to expect that the AKP will be able to address all the crucial issues of Turkish politics. The party is is not free from the hierarchical, corrupt, nepotistic and patronage-based characteristics that historically have beset Turkish mass parties. Despite some efforts made by the party leadership, the AKP government has been notorious for its partisan practices in allocating contracts, making official appointments, and choosing between bids for major projects.

Moreover, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself exercises absolute control over the party organisation and crushed several vocal dissidents before the elections. The downside of the party-list system is that all electoral candidates were chosen by a top-down approach; the negative aspect of the vibrancy of local party branches is that they act also as centres of enrichment and redistribution without any transparency, accountability and institutionalised concern with social justice.

The Kurdish question

The litmus-test of Turkey's democratisation remains Kurdish demands for greater political and civil rights. While some Kurds aspire for self-governance or even an independent state, a majority would be satisfied with full recognition of Kurdish ethnic and political identity and increasing economic prosperity. An old Kurdish man whose son was killed while fighting as a PKK guerrilla put it succinctly: "We pay our taxes, we send our children to the army as do people in the western regions, but we do not have the same rights. We would like to have that too."

The election signalled some advance here: twenty-four independent candidates supported by the Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi (Democratic Society Party / DTP) gained parliamentary representation. In addition, a noteworthy aspect of the AKP's electoral performance was its huge appeal among Kurdish voters. In many provinces heavily populated by Kurds, the party more than doubled its share of the vote. The AKP's relatively conciliatory approach to Kurdish demands, its allocation of significant funds to the Kurdish regions and its appeal among traditional and pious Kurds were decisive in this regard. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to apply comprehensive and unwavering policies to a democratic solution of the Kurdish problem.

For the first time since 1994, Kurdish nationalism will have parliamentary representation. This may cultivate an atmosphere of maturing dialogue that helps moderate Kurds to establish alliances with those segments of Turkish society and politics which are sympathetic with to their plight. In the absence of this process, a continuation of violence between the Turkish army and the Kurdish guerrillas would undermine the parliamentary process, rekindle the politics of fear and increase the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Kurdish region of Iraq.

The stakes for Turkey - inside and outside its borders - remain very high, therefore. But the election of 22 July 2007 contains the seeds of hope for a fresh, democratic turn in Turkish politics.

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