While Syrian pour across the border into Turkey to escape the armies of Assad, the Turks already have their hands full with a crucial national election this weekend. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is expected to score an easy victory.
Erdogan has led Turkey since 2002, overseeing the country’s rapid economic growth as it gradually seeks to join the European Union (EU).
In the event that AK gains a two-third majority, Erdogan will be able to rewrite the Constitution without calling for a referendum.
The existing constitution was written in the early 1980s when a military coup seized power in the country. Erdogan has promised that the new constitution will provide democratic reforms, but his opponents allege he is only seeking to increase his powers.
International Business Times spoke with Turkey and Middle East expert Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., about the upcoming election and the far-reaching ramifications.
IBTIMES: The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is widely expected to win the general election in next month's general election in Turkey. If they do, will they automatically rewrite the nation's constitution? Why?
ACHILOV: One of the main campaign promises of AKP has been the writing of a new civil constitution that would replace the old, 1982 military junta-sponsored constitution.
Even though AKP was successful in pushing for major sweeping reforms and changes to the 1982 constitution (as a result of national referendum in September 2010), its inconsistent and vague language -- regarding certain civil and political rights and their interpretations -- still prevail.
Unless AKP can secure 367 votes in the parliament (two-thirds of all seats), the road to a new constitution will be tough. It is possible that AKP may reach this critical mass; if not, AKP will have to rely on the support from other party members to reach the 367 figure.
In principle, all major political parties -- including AKP, Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) -- agree that a new, civil constitution is a must. Yet, there is no intra-party consensus on the means of achieving this goal together. This division is largely commanded by party ideologies. Each party promises to draft a new constitution if elected to power; each party wants to do it on its own way; each party is blaming the other parties of “incompetency, unfairness and abuse” which may lead to a failed constitution unless done by itself.
However, the absence of consociational political platform in Turkish politics will make it hard for AKP to rewrite the constitution unless it secures the critical number of votes in the parliament. At any rate, it will be imperative that AKP bring all voices of Turkish society (Kemalists, secularists, conservatives, nationalists, Kurds, etc) on board as it will attempt to draft a new constitution.
IBTIMES: AKP has ruled Turkey since 2002. Over that time, what have they accomplished in terms of human rights and economic advancements?
ACHILOV: During the tenure of AKP rule, Turkey has accomplished highly impressive economic performance and a record number of bills regarding civil and political rights.
Yet, the level of democratic rights still remains insufficient with a lot of room for further reforms. The new civil constitution may be the final solution to close the human rights gap in Turkey.
Since AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey appears to have accomplished some major political and developmental benchmarks. To cite a few:
*High and steady economic growth (Turkey is the fastest growing economy in Europe; it posted an astounding 8-plus percent growth in 2010, which stunned both the EU and AKP itself).
*GDP (PPP) per capita today stands at over $12,000. It was about $6,700 in 2002. Thus, living standards have nearly doubled in Turkey.
*In the past, criticizing the military elites, let alone prosecuting them in civilian courts, was a taboo and almost unthinkable. After the 2010 Constitutional reforms, this restriction was lifted; the previously untouchable military officers are now being tried in civilian courts and equally being brought to justice (a critical milestone for the rule of law and Turkish democracy).
*The state of civil society has dramatically improved and became significantly transparent and free as lauded by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in 2010. Yet, concerns on unresolved human rights and civil liberties issues still remain. The gains, however, for Turkish democracy have been substantial over the past nine years.
*The corruption index for Turkey improved by 37 percent since 2002 according to Transparency International. In 2010, Turkey was 51st least politically-corrupt country in the world (with a score of 4.4). In 2002, Turkey ranked 91st least corrupt state. Even though corruption levels have decreased during the AKP rule, the grim effects of political corruption in Turkey are still gravely high. As a comparison, the least corrupt country was Denmark with a score of 9.3 in 2010.
*Turkey has substantially reduced its foreign debt balance. For instance, Turkey only owes $5.5 billion to the IMF today. The debt balance was $23.5 when AKP first came to power. At a time when many industrialized EU member states are seeking higher debts from IMF, Turkey is paying them off. It is an important accomplishment.
IBTIMES: AKP is regarded as a conservative, Islamist group (though not extreme). Who is the base of their support?
ACHILOV: Even though the base of AKP is largely conservative sect of population who support wider a role for Islam in politics, the composition of the AKP’s base has changed over the past ten years. There is a significant mass of non-conservative, secular-oriented liberals who increasingly voted for AKP. It would be a fair statement to argue that increasing numbers of liberals are supporting AKP in Turkey.
The main reason for AKP’s growing popularity is the growing economy, effective social services extended by elected AKP regional governors, wider civil liberties and emboldened image of Turkey in global arena.
Citizens of multiple political colors are behind the AKP today. If it was only the conservatives that would vote for AKP in 2007, it would not have won a landslide victory with a stunning 47 percent vote share in 2007 national elections.
IBTIMES: Is AKP disliked and distrusted by the left-wing intelligentsia? And what do the genuinely conservative Muslims think of AKP?
ACHILOV: It would probably be more accurate to say that the left-wing intelligentsia is split and shows mixed reactions to AKP (depending on how far left they are on political spectrum).
However, the ultra-secular Kemalists widely distrust the AKP and view the AKP’s policies as a threat to Turkish secularism. What we see in Turkey today is the emergence of competing political views and relatively open discussions which are benefiting the state of Turkish civil society.
Although the hardline conservatives often criticize AKP for not being genuinely “conservative,” an increasing percentage if this faction is choosing to vote for AKP for pragmatic reasons given the fact that the hardline conservative political parties, such as HAS (Voice of People) and SAADET (Felicity) parties are not expected to win enough votes to enter Turkish parliament.
IBTIMES: The opposition MHP Party has suffered a wave of
resignations due to sex scandals. Was MHP a serious challenger to AKP? Does the Turkish media feel that the MHP was the victim of a conspiracy?
ACHILOV: Recent sex scandals have shaken MHP ranks significantly. The senior executives of MHP had no choice but to step down after scandalous tapes were released into video-sharing social network websites.
MHP, nonetheless, is not a serious challenger to AKP. We have yet to see the effects of these sex tapes on the upcoming elections . It is possible that MHP may not reach the minimum required 10 percent vote-share benchmark to enter Turkish parliament. Similarly in 2010, the sex scandal forced the former leader of CHP, Deniz Baykal, out of office. Numerous conspiracy theories are floating around. Indeed, there is little doubt that a well-calculated conspiracy is at play on the eve of national elections.
According to multiple sources and numerous political pundits, these tapes were secretly and strategically orchestrated by certain illicit forces that seek to shape or restructure CHP and MHP executives.
IBTIMES: Does the right-wing MHP have significant support in the country? Do they present a threat to democracy?
ACHILOV: The right-wing nationalists constitute a sizable minority: MHP is believed to represent 8-14 percent of the Turkish electorate.
Often, we see rising nationalist rhetoric in the country as a reaction to a growing threat of PKK (Kurdish) terrorists who often orchestrate assassinations and bombings against peaceful civilians and state institutions. The hardline nationalists pose serious tensions to Turkish-Kurdish coexistence primarily stemming from PKK’s terror-driven separatist activities.
It is important to highlight that some policy tendencies of the MHP are discriminatory in nature against minorities (e.g., Kurds). On the whole, it would be premature to consider MHP as a threat to democracy. The nationalists contribute to a political plurality in emerging civil society and increasingly strengthening Turkish democracy. In addition, as a movement of more than 50 years, MHP should be judged more comprehensively and not by contemporary volatile political dispositions.
IBTIMES: Does AKP need the MHP as an ally in parliament?
ACHILOV: Surprisingly, MHP did not support the constitutional reforms (changes) in the 2010 national referendum just because it was advocated by AKP ruling party. It surprised many observers. The MHP base was somewhat surprised by the MHP leadership. The ideological framework of MHP, as portrayed and used by the MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, is designed to counter AKP’s policies in virtually all matters.
In the macro perspective, however, MHP party ideology is much closer to AKP than it is to CHP. Surprisingly, over the past eight years, MHP appeared to align more with CHP (regardless of sharp ideological differences) compared to AKP.
In the end, AKP may need MHP’s help to pass the new civil constitution.
IBTIMES: Erdogan has been courting the Kurdish vote. Does this surprise you? And, are the Kurds a large enough voting bloc to make a difference in the election results?
ACHILOV: It is not surprising that AKP has traditionally tried to appeal to Kurdish votes. It has been successful, in fact.
The Kurdish votes are central in Southeast Turkey where they dominate. The Kurds make up 15 percent of Turkey’s overall population. What we see on the ground is a fierce battle for Kurdish votes between AKP and The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
If not for BDP, most likely, mainstream Kurdish people are expected to support for AKP, rather than CHP or, of course, MHP.
AKP has earned a good reputation for its pro-Kurdish minority legislations and wide-reaching social services (health care, education and infrastructure), which has been lacking in southeast region for many years. Polls show that AKP is expected to pick up more seats in 2011 from the southeast compared to 2007.
IBTIMES: The BDP cannot guarantee the support of the Kurds?
ACHILOV: While the Kurds are expected to support BDP, an increasing percentage has been leaning towards AKP and less to BDP in recent years.
This is not surprising given that the AKP has sponsored numerous “Democratic Openings” (bills geared towards) granting sweeping civil liberties to Kurdish minority. AKP consistently pursued “more integration,” “plurality,” and “dialogue” driven policies in sharp contrast to CHP and MHP’s more isolationist stance in regards to Kurds.
IBTIMES: In the event AKP is re-elected, what do you think is their vision for Turkey? Closer relations to the West? Or a move away from Europe and the US?
ACHILOV: For the first time, Turkey is trying to define its own path on the world stage. This path is clearly independent from Western influence and from Asian (and Middle Eastern) pressures. In this light, Turkey will move closer to the West only to the extent it will best serve its long-term strategic interests.
Likewise, Turkey’s closer alliance with the East will be determined by its long-term geo-strategic aspirations.
If AKP is re-elected, it will not move away from the West. To the contrary, AKP will most likely pursue deeper cooperation with the West, while maintaining its strong ties to Asia, Middle East and Africa.
On the whole, Turkey is expected to seek its own political leverage and regional influence by pursuing “balanced” diplomacy by keeping all its neighbors (including the West) closer to cooperation than confrontation while keeping its interests intact.