By Belinda Cooper
Turks go to the polls on Sunday in national elections that are all but certain to bring the Justice and Development Party, AKP, its third successive electoral victory since 2002. The question is not whether, but by how much, the AKP will win. The party, with its roots in moderate Islamism, has transformed the country in its years in power. The economy is booming, Turkey has improved relations with its neighbors and raised its profile on the world stage, and human rights protections—while still problematic—are improving. This has made the AKP extremely popular. Its likely victory is aided by the fact that the country lacks a meaningful opposition. The other two main parties likely to cross Turkey’s high 10% threshold for entry into parliament—the Republican People’s Party (CHP)with a new but uncharismatic leader, and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—lack convincing strategies or programs. (A Kurdish-oriented party, the BDP, will also likely be represented.)
Still, the AKP and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have also been polarizing in a country that has not been very good at internal dialogue and compromise. Many observers worry that an overwhelming majority for the AKP could endanger Turkey’s vulnerable democracy.
Fears that the party would lead Turkey towards a fundamentalist Islamist state have not been borne out, but secularist followers of the Republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, continue to believe that this is the party’s ultimate goal. More concretely, Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies have also caused concern, especially in the wake of recent arrests of numerous journalists critical of the party. Proposals to restrict Internet access have been met with massive protests by Turkey’s emerging civil society. Arrests and investigations of members of the so-called “deep state”—the union of security services, military and judiciary that is widely believed to have pulled the strings in Turkey before the AKP’s ascent to power—have been hailed as a successful attempt to dismantle an undemocratic apparatus. The formerly all-powerful military is now being called to account for its bloody coups. But as the investigations drag on without trial or sentence, many, particularly in the Kemalist camp, see them as increasingly unjust. Others criticize the government’s unfulfilled promises: early initiatives to resolve the state’s ongoing conflict with its Kurdish minority have stalled.
Erdogan’s referendum last fall on changes to the constitution led to significant and largely positive reforms. A new constitution is slated to be written by the parliament that will be elected on Sunday—a replacement of the current constitution, which was the flawed result of a coup in 1982. A parliament dominated by the AKP would call into question the legitimacy of the constitutional reform process, undermining the entire project of democratization. For this reason, many observers hope that the CHP and the extreme nationalist MHP will enter parliament with enough seats to have a real say in constitutional drafting.
Assuming that polls are accurate and the AKP will not achieve an absolute majority in parliament, these elections will usher in an uncertain but crucially important period for Turkey. It cannot return to an authoritarian past controlled by the military; the changes of the past decade cannot be undone. Domestically, Turkey’s nascent civil society has initiated transformative debates on some of the country’s most deep-seated taboos, such as the existence and rights of minority groups, freedom of expression, the role of religion, and even that greatest of taboos, the Armenian genocide. Externally, with its strong economy and assertive foreign policy, Turkey has made itself a player on the international stage. Turkey’s path in the coming years will be shaped by whether the AKP is able and willing to work with other parties and forces in society to build on these changes and successes.
Belinda Cooper is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. She recently
[Photo: Belinda Cooper]