Elections In Turkey: The Constitution and Democracy

A reduced majority for Erdogan will reinforce Turkish democracy and perhaps even kick-start EU negotiations.

Erdogan thanks Turkey at bus stops in 2007
Sam Reeve
On 19 June 2011 10:37

The secular establishment within in Turkey is, and has long been, wary of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Traditionally, prevailing opinion amongst critics has been that the ultimate aim of the Islamist-rooted party is the imposition of sharia law, with examples of efforts to criminalise adultery and ease restrictions relating to the wearing of the headscarf being oft cited. 

However, after almost nine years of single-party AKP government, the inaccuracy of such claims is being recognised; the hurdle of incorporating religiously-tinted political organisations into a rigorously laicist political framework while confining the secular generals to their barracks has been a crucial step in Ankara's democratic epiphany. With allegations pertaining to the establishment of Turkish theocracy being notably less prominent in the build-up to parliamentary elections on 12 June than in either of the previous two ballots, economic performance and constitutional reform were able to dominate discussions.

The AKP takes much credit for orchestrating steady economic growth and raising living standards following the bust of 2001; with per capita GDP having almost trebled from $3,500 to $10,000 since 2002, coupled with economic misery for European and Mediterranean neighbours, AKP performance appears particularly impressive. Equally, the AKP has been responsible for opening coveted EU accession talks, albeit so far with little return, as well as instigating welcome policies of “strategic depth” and “zero problems” in the foreign policy sphere. 

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that opinion polls prior to parliamentary elections indicated a 40-45% share of the popular vote. While this figure was marginally less than the 47% achieved in 2007, it represented an improvement on the 39% support achieved in the municipal elections of 2009 and a substantial lead over the secular Republican People's Party (CHP). Accordingly, the outcome of the election was never in doubt; with Erdogan set to become the first Turkish leader to win three consecutive elections, the only questions being asked concerned the size of the AKP majority.

Despite the party's favourable record in government and the concomitant approval of public opinion, the AKP's popularity prior to Sunday's election had been the cause of much concern. With the idiosyncrasies of the Turkish electoral system requiring that parties surpass 10% of the popular vote before taking seats in parliament, the AKP could feasibly have returned a “super-majority” of 367 MPs which would enable Erdogan to unilaterally rewrite the constitution and, many feared, “Kremlinise” Turkish politics. 

Similarly, a 60% majority (i.e. 330 MPs) would have allowed the party to put constitutional proposals directly to the public without consulting opposition opinion. Exploiting the lack of institutional safeguards in such a Machiavellian manner would clearly fail to conform with democratic ideals; while achieving a simple majority legitimates the enactment of specific policies, changing the framework within which politics takes place should be subject to sterner requirements. As a result, constitutional reform became a central electoral issue.

The current constitution is the product of the military coup of 1980. Attempting to revoke many of the liberalising facets introduced by the previous military constitution of 1961 in seeking to ensure against communist infiltration, the 1982 document placed a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the state machinery and created a democratic deficit. 

Thus, despite numerous amendments, including many passed by the AKP, there is broad consensus on the requirement for a new constitution capable of meeting the demands of a growing and modernising state in the 21st century: the 2007 elections highlighted that Ankara can only consolidate democratic transition once any constitutional validation of military intervention has been removed, thereby enhancing the prospect of longed-for EU accession.

Prior to the election, both AKP and CHP promised to recast the constitution should they be victorious, with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, CHP leader, pledging to 'bring democracy and freedom to the country'. However, while Kilicdaroglu vowed extensive changes, including greater rights for Kurds and Alevis, reinforced press freedoms (at a time when Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country), and a reduction in the 10% electoral threshold, Erdogan remained very nondescript about his visions for a new document, saying little more than that he desired a 'constitution of the people' that would be 'short, compact, [and] open' with greater presidential powers. 

With Erdogan disqualified from running for a fourth term as prime minister yet indicating his intention to retain political influence, campaigning under the slogan “Objective 2023” in an apparent effort to evoke comparison with Ataturk in the build-up to the Republic's centenary, suspicions arose that Erdogan intended to aggrandise the presidency and create a political system loosely based upon the French model before manoeuvring himself into the role. 

Statements made by Erdogan prior to ballots being cast regarding the AKP's disinclination to make constitutional amendments should the party fail to win 330 seats, preemptively renouncing any potential for cross-party collaboration amidst an air of conceit resulting from success in a 2010 referendum on a series of constitutional amendments, did little to avert such scepticism. A strong AKP mandate could therefore have the adverse effect of reversing aspects of AKP-inspired democratisation.

Near-complete results indicate another AKP victory, winning almost 50% of the popular vote while the CHP polled 26% and the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) 13%. Translating to 326 parliamentary seats (fifteen fewer than in 2007 despite gaining roughly five million additional votes), fears of the AKP being able to unilaterally institutionalise Erdogan's political control have been quelled – a result of the MHP surpassing the 10% barrier combined with independents scoring an impressive 36 seats. 

Accordingly, in something of a volte face, Erdogan proclaimed in his victory speech that 'the people gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation', declaring that the AKP would 'discuss the new constitution with opposition parties'. While the AKP will be able to act freely as a result of the mandate delivered by the electorate, greater cooperation with newly-strengthened opposition parties will be required if constitutional changes are to be enacted, particularly with the Peace and Democracy Party-backed independents in redressing the Kurdish issue; a continuing failure to deliver on such promises would seriously hamper any future effort by Erdogan to capture the presidency. 

Such consensus seeking will doubtlessly reinforce Ankara's democratic foundations while holding the potential to kick-start faltering negotiations with the EU at a time when relations with Muslim neighbours are under great strain. In this respect, a reduced majority may serve to strengthen Erdogan as well as democracy.

Sam Reeve is a freelance writer on politics and current affairs. He blogs at www.sam-reeve.blogspot.com and tweets at @Reeve_Sam

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