Middle East

Turkey general election: What's at stake and why it matters

The Associated Press

 (The Associated Press)

Turkey’s national parliamentary election on June 7th matters. The future direction of one of the Middle East’s strongest, most economically successful, most populous countries is at stake.

While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s name is not on the ballot, this Sunday’s general election may determine whether the most accomplished vote-getter in Turkish history, its three-time elected prime minister and elected president since August is likely to become even stronger, as well as the most dominant political figure since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular founder of modern Turkey.  

Effectively, Turks are being asked whether to endorse Erdogan’s desire to rewrite the country’s constitution and transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential system, which many analysts say will enable Erdogan to continue accumulating power and concentrating it in his own hands.

Much, too, is as stake for his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party, the AKP, which has won nine consecutive elections and dominated the country’s 550-seat parliament since its initial victory 13 years ago. If an opposition coalition of Kurds, disgruntled, unemployed youth, and secular liberal and leftist critics of the government stick together, they could deny the AKP the supermajority needed to transform Turkey’s political system. There seems little doubt that the party now faces the toughest challenge yet to its single party rule.

Turks are effectively being asked whether to endorse Erdogan’s desire to rewrite the country’s constitution and transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential system, which many analysts say will enable Erdogan to continue accumulating power and concentrating it in his own hands.

Finally, the Turkish election could affect Turkey’s relations with the United States and the West.

Only four years ago Turkey was regarded as a pro-Western stalwart in the NATO alliance, a candidate for membership in the European Union, a distinctly democratic club, and a pragmatic pursuer of “zero problems with the neighbors,” as the then foreign minister described Turkey’s foreign policy agenda.

Since then, however, Turkey has quarreled with almost all its neighbors. Its traditional allies, moreover, have come to perceive Erdogan’s government, perhaps unfairly to some extent, as a quixotic ally and undependable friend.

President Erdogan’s more authoritarian policies and his “pro-Ottoman discourse,” as the Financial Times calls his apparent quest to restore Turkey’s lost glory as the main political seat of Muslim power, have created tensions at home and abroad.

Though Erdogan’s party is almost certain to win Sunday’s election, an erosion of support would be seen as a political rebuke which might prompt him to shelve his political reform plans, contain his alleged hunger for power, Ankara’s growing resort to restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and what his critics increasingly denounce as repressive, authoritarian policies.

 “Turkey has always had top-down rule with, except for the military, weak government institutions,” said Elmira Bayrasli, a New York-based American analyst of Turkish origin. “Erdogan came to power with a message of inclusion, minority rights, and institution building.  The tragedy may be that while he has brought many into Turkish economic and political life who were traditionally excluded, he has not really changed the system, but become part of it.”

Turkey’s economic woes may also weaken support for the AKP. While its economic performance was once impressive – the country grew by almost 7 percent a year between 2002 and 2007 – growth has slowed of late, averaging roughly 3 percent since 2012. Private investment and productivity are now flat; unemployment is high.

In a special supplement on Turkey in April, the Financial Times reported that perceptions about corruption have prompted Turkey to drop 11 places in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index.  Turkey now ranks 64th globally.

The parallel slide in democracy worries the country’s supporters in the West. Though Turkey’s stability in this most unstable of regions is an impressive achievement, the institutional pillars that support both have been under fierce pressure. 

While the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists states in its 2015 report that the number of journalists in prison in Turkey has fallen – from 100 in 2010, the world’s highest number, to a low in 2014 of 7 – the media are constrained and engage in self-censorship for fear of angering Ankara.

The Turkish Journalists’ Association has accused the government of equating journalism with terrorism. The judicial system, too, has lost much of the independence it once gained. Non-governmental organizations say they face growing intimidation.

Yet elections continue in this nation of 76 million, and ‘til now, most have been reported to be relatively free and fair.

If the AKP win a two-thirds majority in the parliament on Sunday, it will be able to increase Erdogan’s presidential powers significantly —without having to hold a constitutional referendum.

If it fails to get a supermajority, such a transformation is unlikely. Whether it can reach its goal depends largely on the appeal and electoral prospects of the man seen as Erdogan key challenger – Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic, 42-year old Kurdish lawyer who heads the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

Under Demirtas’s stewardship, the HDP, has been transformed from a group fighting mainly for Kurdish rights into a mainstream liberal party.

Many members of Turkey’s two main secular parties once vowed never to vote for a Kurdish-led rival. But if they break ranks and tradition to join the HDP, the party could garner the 10 percent of the vote needed to win seats in parliament and block a KDP supermajority.

If it does not, all those seats are likely to be given to Erdogan’s AKP. So this is a huge, risky gamble for Demirtas, and could be a major potential crossroads for Turkey.

Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2015).