Turkey's Ruling Party Poised For Election Victory

Jun 10, 2011

The party of Turkey's sitting prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is poised to win a third term in power when Turks go to the polls Sunday.

Turkey's secular opposition, having failed to convince voters that the ruling party has a "secret Islamist agenda," is hoping to keep the government from winning a two-thirds majority in Parliament. If it does, the Justice and Development Party, known as the AK Party or AKP, could rewrite Turkey's Constitution essentially without constraint.

On the stump, Erdogan is as charismatic as ever, reminding voters how he kept his promise to bring Turkey's economic resurgence home to the people.

"Per capita income used to be $3,400; now we are over $10,000. Inflation used to be 30 percent; now it's down to only 4.3 percent. And we're not done yet — everything will be better, everything will be more stable," Erdogan said.

Rewriting The Constitution

At a recent political event, analyst Yavuz Baydar said the biggest issue remains overhauling Turkey's 1980 Constitution.

"The realization now is very clear: Turkey, with its strengthened economy, regional and global foreign policy, cannot go on with a constitution designed by a military junta in 1980," Baydar said. "It's like a straitjacket for the society."

But for secular Turks, there's a troubling question: If the deeply religious Erdogan wins a two-thirds majority, his party can rewrite the constitution without input from secular forces or the public. For opposition lawmaker Gulseren Onanc, that sounds more like a threat than a promise.

"[It's] very dangerous. The more power they have politically, the more autocratic they become," Onanc says. "So if AKP comes up with its own draft, it will be dangerous for [the] whole society, I would say, and the democracy of Turkey."

She and other critics point to a series of disturbing developments: 17 journalists jailed since September, joining dozens more already in prison; the promise of new Internet filters that will block websites, though the government won't say which ones.

Writer and columnist Mustafa Akyol says there are reasons to worry about the AK Party, but those shouldn't be conflated with secular fears of a secret plan to create an Islamic theocracy in Turkey.

"No, that has not happened. That's not going to happen," Akyol says. "But AKP has problems — classical problems of Turkish politics. Like nepotism. Like leader domination of the party. Like not enjoying criticism."

A 'Bread And Butter Issues' Election

Analysts say that while it's probably coming too late for this election, Turkey's struggling opposition parties have begun reshaping their messages, having learned a painful lesson. Where they see a creeping authoritarianism and a growing intolerance of dissent, ordinary Turks see something much more tangible: better living conditions today and the promise of more to come.

Veteran political columnist Sedat Ergin, at times a sharp critic of Erdogan, returned from a recent tour of the Anatolian heartland convinced that the AK Party has sewn up this election because of three things: new highways; subsidized housing that made first-time homeowners out of thousands of Turks; and health care reforms that let people use their state insurance at private hospitals.

Ergin's colleague at the Hurriyet Daily News, columnist David Judson, says if Erdogan's foes think they can top that with esoteric warnings about the future of Turkey's democracy, they're mistaken.

"When you look at Turkey from Brussels or Washington or the leafy precincts where we're now sitting in Istanbul, yeah, there are real concerns about this government's commitment to human rights and commitment to freedom of the press and increasing authoritarianism. But if you haven't got a computer, the passionate arguments being waged in the parlors of Istanbul about Internet filtering don't resonate," Judson says.

"Those are not bread-and-butter issues, and this is an election that seems to be turning on bread-and-butter issues," he says.

As campaign trucks troll for last-minute support along Istanbul's busy streets, late polls predict the AK Party will win enough seats to write a new constitution, but not enough to avoid a public referendum.

Analysts say as Americans gear up for an election that seems likely to turn on a struggling economy, it's worth noting that Turkey's ruling party has a firm grasp on what it takes to win another mandate from the voters.

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