By Katinka Barysch and Charles Grant
Some of Turkey’s critics say that it has no place in the EU because it is not a European country. Others criticise the quality of its democracy. The first group tends to focus on the Islamist philosophy of the ruling AK party, while the second group complains about the role of the armed forces in public life. The dramatic series of events in Turkey over the past four months should go some way towards reassuring both camps.
In April, the armed forces threatened the AKP over its choice of Abdullah Gul as its presidential candidate. The constitutional court declared the first round of voting in the parliament invalid. Millions marched in the streets in defence of secularism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called an early election to defuse the crisis. His AK party won enough votes to form another single-party government.
These events show that Turkey’s democracy is maturing fast. Having hinted that it might launch a coup, the army has respected the democratic process and stayed in its barracks. The AKP won voters’ confidence by promoting a moderate brand of Islamism, and by adding more secular candidates and women to its electoral list. Celebrating his re-election, a statesman-like Erdogan called for reconciliation, reform and universal respect for Turkey’s secular constitution.
Erdogan will need all his considerable political skills to get through the challenges of the next twelve months. The election outcome was good for the AKP but it showed a country split down the middle. With 47 per cent of the vote, the AKP did significantly better than in 2002. Then, much of its support was due to voters’ disillusionment with a bickering and self-serving political establishment. This time round, its victory was a reward for good economic management and – despite the occasional backtracking – political moderation.
Some 38 per cent of Turkish voters opted for nationalist parties, if one adds up the votes of the hard-line MHP, the nominally centre-left CHP and Cem Uzan’s radical GP. There is little that unites these parties, apart from their attempts to portray the AKP as radical on Islam and limp-wristed on security. But the scare tactics of the secular establishment and the army obviously failed to convince most Turks.
Three of the 14 parties that ran in the election overcame the 10 per cent vote threshold for parliamentary representation; in the previous parliament it was only the AKP and the CHP. Now they are being joined by 71 MHP members and 28 ‘independents’, most of whom are from the Kurdish party, the DTP. So although the AKP received a higher share of the vote than in 2002, it will have fewer seats in parliament. With 342 MPs, the AKP still has enough votes to pass laws, but not to change the constitution or, importantly, elect a new president.
Turkey will hold a referendum on an AKP proposal to move the presidential election from the parliament to the people, but not until the autumn. So the next president will once again be chosen by Turkey’s 550 MPs. Two-thirds (or 367) of them need to be present to make the first round of voting valid, following a constitutional court ruling in April. If the CHP and the MHP boycotted the presidential ballot to prevent an AKP candidate winning, there would probably be another early election. Erdogan might try to push through his candidate with the help of the ‘independents’. But then the army would decry an Islamist-Kurdish conspiracy and roll back onto the political scene. It will not be easy to find a candidate that looks acceptable to both the secular-nationalist opposition and the more conservative parts of the AKP. But Erdogan should be able to do it. He may placate his own AKP by hinting that he could himself stand in the first popular presidential poll. If, as seems likely, Erdogan finds a compromise presidential candidate, he would undermine the army’s claim that Turkey’s secular order is under threat.
The AKP also faces tricky decisions over Iraq. It was perhaps no coincidence that General Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey’s army chief, asked for a mandate to take action against outposts of Kurdish PKK guerrillas in Northern Iraq, just a few months before the election. The government had little choice but to say No. Such cross-border incursions would wreck what is already a tense relationship with Washington and create considerable strains with the EU. And then there is the risk of the military getting bogged down in a prolonged guerrilla war on foreign territory. Nevertheless, the army’s persistent hectoring made the government look weak on the security front, and probably helped to increase the MHP’s share of the vote. If the PKK is sufficiently provocative – for example letting off big bombs in tourist resorts – the government would have little choice but to endorse a military intervention.
Once the presidential election is out of the way, the new government will have to get down to work. The AKP gets a lot of its legitimacy from its impressive economic record. Markets jumped with joy over the AKP’s re-election. But the government now faces the tricky task of putting its reform successes on a more sustainable footing. This will include continued privatisation (not least to attract the money to finance a current-account deficit that hit a worrying 8 per cent of GDP last year); an overhaul of social security; further improvements in the budget; better infrastructure (two million people a year are moving from the rural areas into already overcrowded cities) and labour market reforms. In this young country, around a quarter of a million jobs need to be created every year, just to keep the unemployment rate constant at 10 per cent.
The AKP will have to navigate these tricky waters at a time when the EU anchor has become loser. Nicolas Sarkozy has vetoed the opening of the chapter on economic and monetary union in Turkey’s accession negotiations, because he says that only full members need to bother with single currency rules. And Turkey, he claims, will not achieve that status so long as he is president. He wants the EU have another big debate about the future boundaries of Europe in December. His views on that are clear.
Erdogan is to be congratulated for his measured response to Sarkozy’s tactics. In the past, Turkish politicians often warned that EU wavering would result in a nationalist backlash and political instability in Turkey. But now Erdogan’s government is promising to soldier on with its EU preparations. “We will be ready in 2014”, he says, “irrespective of what the EU does”.
Much of the AKP’s positive agenda since 2002 has been inspired by the objective of EU accession. The party’s pro-EU credentials helped it to mitigate the deep suspicions it encountered among the urban elites. What would happen to the AKP’s reform plans and its legitimacy if Sarkozy succeeded in ruling out Turkey’s full membership? The new government needs the EU anchor to consolidate its successes.
Katinka Barysch is chief economist and Charles Grant is the Director of Centre for European Reform
The impetus to join the EU has been a key factor in the AKP's victory. Erdogan carried out the right reforms, and a lot of Turks support him.
I wonder what will happen if Erdogan opts to continue with Abdullah Gul as the presidential candidate. The army will be wedged tight between their guardianship of secularism and the will of the people, eh?
Hello CER, and thanks for continuing ti post good stuff on your blog, which I have just reviewed on my own blog (www.brusselscomment.blogspot.com).
On Turkey, I wonder if the French would be so aggressively anti-membership if they had to explicitly endorse the continuation of negotiations every so often. This might focus their minds and discourage them from being so populist...?
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