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Interpreting the AKP Victory in Turkey

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Recep Tayyip Erdoganby Richard Falk and Hilal Elver

It is the first time since the founding of the republic by Kemal Ataturk that such widespread international interest was aroused by Turkey’s June 12th elections. Naturally it is a time for celebration by the AKP in view of its landslide victory, a vindication of its overall economic and political approach over the past nine years. It is also an endorsement of its creative foreign policy that had given Turkey such a prominent place on regional and global diplomatic maps for the first time in its republican history.

This afterglow of electoral victory should not obscure the challenges that lie ahead for the AKP. The most important of these involve finally providing the large Kurdish minority with secure cultural and political rights that to be trusted, would need to be vested in a new constitution. There is wide agreement in Turkey that the existing 1982 constitution, reflecting the approach taken by oppressive leaders of a military coup, needs to be replaced, but there are serious divisions among Turks with respect to the substantive content of such a new constitution. The secular opposition, as represented by the CHP, remains particularly worried about an alleged danger of the Putinization of the Turkish government if a switch is made from a parliamentary to a presidential system. More concretely, the AKP opposition believes that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harbors authoritarian dreams that could be fulfilled if Turkey were to follow the French presidential model.

Yet there should be less worry for two main reasons. Firstly, the AKP while winning 325 seats in parliament fell well short of securing the 367 seats needed for the parliamentary supermajorities that would have allowed it to decide on its own the contents of a new constitution or even of the 330 seats necessary for it to be able to write a constitution that would become the law of the land after it received approval in a national referendum. Without this degree of parliamentary control, the AKP will not be able to produce a constitution without the cooperation of the other parties represented in the parliament, especially the CHP, and that bodes well, particularly if the opposition acts responsibly by offering constructive cooperation.

And secondly, Erdogan in his victory speech went out of his way to reassure the country that constitutional reform would be a consensual process protective of diverse life styles and framed so as to achieve acceptance and justice for the entire society. At the moment of victory Erdogan seemed unexpectedly sensitive to criticism of his supposedly arrogant political style, and took the high road of moderation and humility. He seemed intent on convincing the Turkish public as a whole that he respected the secular principles that had dominated political life since the time of Ataturk, and that the country would become more pluralistic than ever in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

It is not just Turks who should welcome this AKP victory. The electoral outcome provides the Middle East with an extremely positive example of dynamic democracy at a time of unresolved internal struggles throughout the region. The steady and helpful diplomatic hand of Turkey offers an attractive alternative to anxieties and memories associated with American and European interventions and alignments in the region. Turkey is a vibrant society with a flourishing economy that has managed to follow a democratic path to political stability and an independent course in foreign policy, and that offers an inspiring example for others to follow according to their various national circumstances.

There are many uncertainties that cloud prospects for the future. Turkey faces the consequences of an unresolved bloody conflict in neighboring Syria, including the challenge of managing a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the killing fields. There are also the risks of an escalated confrontation with Iran arising from the Israel/United States hard power response to Iran’s nuclear program. This could ignite a war that engulfs the entire region with a variety of disastrous effects. In addition, the tense relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv are likely to be further stressed in coming weeks as preparation for a Second Freedom Flotilla go forward.

Yet the sun shines brighter on the morning after these Turkish elections. Voters have affirmed an approach to Turkey’s internal and international policies premised on an inclusive approach to peace, justice, and rights. To build on this mandate, and to do so in a manner that is convincing to the majority of Turkish citizens, will create progress in the country and hope for the region. There will be mistakes and setbacks, but the orientation and vision of the AKP leadership is one of the most encouraging political developments of this still young 21st century. 

The Prime Minister’s victory address from the balcony of AKP headquarters, what he calls a “mentorship speech” was the culmination of the long and steady rise of the AKP over the past decade– from 34% of the vote in 2002 to 47% in 2007, and now almost 50% in 2011. With some irony, this latest result did not give the AKP more seats in the Parliament due to recent changes in the electoral system of representation that had been decreed by the Higher Election Board, a part of the state bureaucracy known to be hostile to the AKP. While this restructuring that had hardly been noticed when it took place, hurt the AKP (326 rather than 341), while it helped to the CHP (rising from 112 to 135), and the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) that helped elect Kurdish independent candidates. As well, the rightest party, National Movement Party (MHP), cleared the 10% threshold, winning 13% of the vote, which produces 53 seats in the new parliament.

The Prime Minister interpreted these results sympathetically, telling the public that he heard the voice of people as demanding consensus rather than a bestowal of unitary power on one party. In his words: “Our nation assigned us to draft a new constitution. They gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation..We will seek the broadest consensus.” The word ‘compromise’ was mentioned three times in the speech.

Erdogan also tried to calm the political waters roiled by inflamed campaign rhetoric when he declared that “[i] cendiary speeches given during the campaign should be forgotten.” This is an encouraging start for the next phase in the process of constructing a democracy that responds to the realities of the dive rse peoples living in Turkey. At one point he promised that the constitution “will address everybody’s demands for freedom, democracy, peace and justice, and each identity and each value.” It is the last phrase that is most relevant as an indication of a resolve to move beyond the unitary ideas of Kemalist Turkey that still animate the ultra-nationalist MHP that during the election campaign reaffirmed its unshakeable belief in “one identity (Turk), one state (Turkey), and one language (Turkish).” Such a rigid position seems impossible to reconcile with the Erdogan consensus approach that was explicitly directed at the quest for distinct cultural and political rights by a series of Turkish minorities, most significantly, the Kurds. Also mentioned by Erdogan were Arabs, Circassians, Georgians, Roma, Alevis, and Laz. The Prime Minister insisted that hereafter “all citizens will be first class,” which seemed to be making an historic commitment to equality between Turks and non-Turks in all phases of national life.

There are additional hopeful signs for Turkey’s future. 78 women were elected to the parliament, significantly more than ever before. Perhaps, finally, the headscarf issue will be resolved in the direction of freedom of religion and the rights of women. Turkish religiously observant Muslim women have suffered the punitive effects of the headscarf ban in public sector activities, including institutions of higher learning, for far too long. The discriminatory nature of the current policy is dramatized by the unassailed freedom of the AKP men who lead the government despite being as religiously observant as their wives.

Moreover, this parliament will be robustly diverse because of the many new faces, including the former left student leader who spent many years in jail( Ertugrul Kurkcu), several CHP members who are in prison, being accused of anti-state activity in the Ergenekon case, and Leyla Zana, the internationally known Kurdish parliamentarian who was originally elected in 1991 and arrived in Parliament wearing a Kurdish flag bandana and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Turkish state. After many years, some of them in jail, Zana is again in parliament. A few days ago on TV she joked: “Perhaps this time I will come with a headscarf,” implying that the individual rights of everyone should be protected, and those who wear headscarves should not be excluded.

As the most popular and admired leader in the region, Erdogan did not forget to send a message to peoples of the Middle East, mentioning several cities and countries by name, including places in occupied Palestine, suggesting rather dramatically that these places will be considered under the same banner of concern as Turkish cities. In a rhetorical flourish Erdogan insisted that the outcome of the elections in Turkey was a victory “for Bosnia as much as Istanbul, Beirut as much as Izmir, Damascus as much as Ankara.” While somewhat hyperbolic, such a display of internationalism was new in Turkish politics, and signifies the rise of Turkey as a diplomatic force beyond its borders.

Erdogan somewhat unexpectedly also recalled a dark episode in Turkey’s past, specifically what happened in 1960 when a military coup not only ousted a democratically elected government headed by the Democratic Party, but executed three of its political leaders, including the Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, because it dared to challenge the supremacy of the military by reducing its budget.  As with the AKP, the Menderes leadership had governed Turkey for three consecutive terms, winning elections by overwhelming majorities. Erdogan was conveying his sense that the struggle to achieve Turkish democracy was long and painful.  He was also indirectly reminding his audience that the ‘deep state’ was no longer in a position to frustrate the will of the people. All in all, the message was upbeat as befits an electoral victory of this magnitude.

A final observation takes note that June 12 was also the day on which Iranian elections were held two years ago. What is so startling is the contrast between the joyful expectations of the majority of the Turkish people after the electoral results were announced as compared to the anger and despair of the Iranian majority who believed for good reason that the regime in Tehran had fraudulently deprived them of an electoral victory. This difference between a governing process that periodically legitimates itself through free and fair multi-party elections and a governing process that lacks the consent of the public and must rule by fear and force may be the most basic fault line in domestic politics, and serves as the litmus test of the Arab Spring in the near future.

Hilal Elver is a visiting professor of global and international studies at the University of California - Santa Barbara and an editor of the Middle East Report.


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