Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Learning to walk again

Turkey's vibrant democracy is an inspiration to Arab countries throwing off their autocratic yoke and their Western patrons, says Eric Walberg

On Sunday, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a crushing victory and a third successive term in power in the Turkish general elections, taking nearly half of the popular vote, the highest approval rating yet. In his victory speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed his tightening grip on domestic power and immediately staked his claim to leadership of the region. He started his speech by hailing "all the friendly and brotherly nations from Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Sarajevo to Baku and Nicosia‚êç.

"Beirut has won as much as Izmir. The West Bank, Gaza, Ramallah and Jerusalem have won as much as Diyarbakir. The Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans have won, just as Turkey has won,‚êç declared Erdogan.

An AKP victory in Sunday's polls had long had been a foregone conclusion. The only questions were the size of its vote and whether it would win enough seats in parliament to be able to draft a new constitution without any support from the opposition. Erdogan had already made it clear that he favoured the replacement of Turkey's parliamentary system with one which concentrated power in the currently largely titular office of the presidency; after which he was expected to try to have himself elected president.

According to provisional results from Sunday's elections the AKP won 49.9 per cent of the popular vote, up from 46.6 per cent at the last election in 2007, giving it 326 seats in Turkey's 550-member unicameral parliament. It was followed by the Republican People's Party (CHP) with 25.9 per cent and 135 seats and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) with 13.0 per cent and 53 seats. The remaining 36 seats were won by candidates running as independents to overcome the 10 per cent threshold for representation in parliament, nearly all of them members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

Under Turkish law, the AKP needs 367 seats to be able to enact a new constitution through parliament. With the support of 330 parliamentary deputies it can draft a new constitution and put it to a public referendum. At first sight, the AKP's failure to achieve either target would suggest that it now needs the support of other parties, something which would reduce the potential for a new constitution tailor-made for Erdogan presidential ambitions. But, although they agree on some issues, the opposition CHP and MHP hold very different views from the government on many key questions. The impressive performance of the BDP, which won just 20 seats in 2007, comes with its calls not only for greater rights for the country's Kurds, but political autonomy; something which Erdogan has repeatedly vowed to resist.

Equally importantly, Erdogan, who is still only 57, has already announced that Sunday's election was the last time that he would run for prime minister. If he fails in his attempts to introduce a presidential system, then he faces the prospect of retiring from active politics at the next general election in 2015. Although the AKP's failure to win at least 330 seats has probably delayed tensions over Erdogan's presidential ambitions, the issue is unlikely to go away. One option would be for Erdogan to try to entice a handful of individual members of the opposition to defect to the AKP and enable it to secure the 330 seats necessary.

In his victory speech on Sunday night, Erdogan repeatedly thanked AKP supporters for their endorsement of the policies he had pursued over the previous four years. Such words are likely to alarm human rights activists inside and outside Turkey who have been expressing increasing concerns about Erdogan's growing authoritarianism. In recent years, hundreds of the AKP's government's opponents have been imprisoned on the flimsiest of charges. There are now more journalists in jail in Turkey than in almost any other country in the world. Newspapers which have criticised the AKP have received crippling tax fines. During the election campaign, rival parties accused AKP supporters in the state apparatus of leaking sex tapes and audio recordings of opposition politicians in an attempt to erode their electoral support.

"I don't know if all of the allegations are true,‚êç said one opposition journalist who asked not to be named. "But it is a fact that people believe them and are frightened of criticising the government. And if the AKP can do all of these things and still increase its vote, then what incentive is there for it to stop?‚êç

The fact that Erdogan's list of "friendly and brotherly nations‚êç was composed exclusively of Muslim countries in the Middle East will not have unnoticed amongst Turkey's erstwhile allies in the West. There are also those who would see some irony in Erdogan claiming to be the leader of a region which is being swept by pro-democracy demonstrations against authoritarian regimes which his government has been reluctant to criticise and, its critics would maintain, the AKP is increasingly beginning to resemble.

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