Friday, June 15, 2007

Turkey before the election

by Katinka Barysch

I have recently come back from Turkey, where the mood is a mixture of relief, hope and anxiety: relief that the army has remained in the barracks; hope that the early election in July will result in a workable compromise between the AKP and the secularists; and anxiety that the crisis that started in April has done lasting damage to Turkish society and its political system.

As far as elections go, the parliamentary poll on July 22nd will be fairly momentous. Even seasoned political observers cannot predict the outcome. There have been no reliable opinion polls since the Erdogan government was forced to abort the presidential election and call an early parliamentary one. Moreover, Turkey’s electorate is fickle at the best of times, and recent dramatic events may have swung millions of voters. Finally, the smaller parties are merging, or trying to do so, to increase their chances of overcoming Turkey’s 10 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation.

Few people doubt that the AKP will once again be the strongest force. Its share of the vote could even slightly exceed the 34 per cent it received in 2001. However, its ultimate political strength will depend on how many parties manage to overcome the 10 per cent threshold. Only two did so at the last election (the AKP and the centre-left Republican People's Party, or CHP), while 45 per cent of votes were ‘wasted’ on parties that did not enter parliament.

The CHP has performed badly in opposition, and its leader, Deniz Baykal, has few friends. But the party will benefit from people’s determination not to waste their votes again and from its recent merger with the other centre-left party (Democratic Left Party, DSP). The centre-right parties – Motherland (Anap) and the True Path Party (DYP) – also tried to merge, unsuccessfully. Even if they get their act together before July, the unedifying spectacle of squabbling party leaders will have put off their supporters. Instead, there could be up to a dozen MPs from the Kurdish South-East in the new parliament. Although their party (the Democratic Society Party, or DTP) will not get 10 per cent of the vote nation-wide, its candidates stand a good chance as independents. Another wild card is the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) which may gain from blaming any future terrorist attacks on the AKP. If, as seems likely, the Erdogan government does not give the Turkish army the mandate it wants to move against PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq, the MHP will portray the government as weak on security issues.

If the CHP plus more than one other party get into parliament, the AKP would fall short of an absolute majority. Speculation about possible coalitions is already rife. A government led by the AKP and including a centre-right party would probably be good news for economic reforms and EU accession. But mutual distrust and disagreements over the issue of secularism would leave it fragile. An alternative scenario is a left-right (and maybe nationalist) coalition designed to keep the AKP out of power. Many Turks already fear a return to the bad old days of policy paralysis and political infighting.

That would be very bad news. Turkey needs a strong and focused government, to navigate through possible tensions with the EU, to deal with the PKK terrorism threat and to consolidate and build on the impressive economic achievements of recent years.

The first test for the new parliament will be the presidential election. Erdogan’s government wants to shift this election from the parliament to the people. But the required law is now stuck in the constitutional court and will eventually go to a referendum. Meanwhile, following constitutional court ruling in May, the first round of the presidential ballot in parliament now requires a two-thirds quorum to be valid. That means that any party in parliament (or a coalition of parties) can hold the government to ransom. Under these circumstances, Abdullah Gul’s presidential bid looks doomed.

The AKP may face the choice between putting forward a candidate who looks more acceptable to the secularists, or risk yet another round of elections. Or worse. The army has not withdrawn its threat of intervention in case the AKP insists on Gul as their presidential candidate.

Some people say that the current stand-off has done too much damage to Turkey already. It has revealed how deep the divisions still run in Turkish society. The Kemalists accuse the AKP of using the education system, the courts and local administration for a ‘slow motion’ Islamist coup. AKP supporters, in turn, accuse the army of doing much the same.

The fact that there is no trust in Turkish politics makes checks and balances all the more important. It seems that this – not Gul’s personality or faith – was the reason why so many people were upset about his presidential candidacy. The president has traditionally been a counter-weight to the government, so was the army. Neither seeks to run the country but both have intervened at times – be it through vetoing laws or rattling sabres – when they thought that the government was crossing a ‘red line’. Erdogan’s single-party government – so much stronger and more effective than most of its predecessors – did not look like a threat as long as the president and the army retained their independence. The nomination of Gul as presidential candidate raised the spectre of an unusually strong prime minister and a popular president both coming from the same political camp. And since the president is also (nominally) the head of the army and (practically) signs off on senior army appointments (as well as those in the judiciary and education), the army itself feared that it could be ‘infiltrated’ by Islamists.

The army argues that it is needed in politics as long as Turkey’s institutions are weak. But democratic institutions cannot prove their resilience as long as the army sees itself as the ultimate arbiter in Turkish politics. The generals probably took May’s mass demonstrations in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir (according to some counts, 10 per cent of the electorate marched in the streets) as a sign of approval and support. They are probably wrong. It may just be a sign that Turkish democracy is vibrant, and Turkish voters are willing and able to defend their preferred way of life. Most Turks want neither an Islamist government nor a military one. Democratisation, EU negotiations, reforms and economic growth mean that the Turkish people have a lot to lose if things go wrong now.

Katinka Barysch is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

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