Turkey's Election: The Massive Implications of a Foregone Conclusion

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Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a rally in Ankara on May 29, 2011, ahead of June 12 elections

In theory, the countdown to Turkey's June 12 elections ought to be a quiet affair. There's little doubt over who will win — polls show incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan poised to win a third term with a comfortable 42% to 48% of the vote. Yet, every day brings news of more violence on the campaign trail. A retired teacher died Monday after riot police tear-gassed an anti-Erdogan rally; a day later in the capital, Ankara, police beat a young protester and broke her hip. Ostensibly at the height of his popularity, Erdogan has also become one of the most divisive figures in Turkish history.

Tall, broad-shouldered and a powerful orator who often sounds like a preacher, Erdogan has over the past eight years left a mark on Turkey unrivaled among his contemporaries. Most notably, he stripped the military of its long-standing role as the sinister arbiter of power behind the scenes of Turkish democracy. For the first time in Turkey's history, generals accused of plotting a coup have been jailed. Erdogan steered the country away from its enduring — and unrequited — obsession with the E.U., and toward a leadership role in the Middle East, independently and sometimes at odds with its long-standing U.S. patron. At home, per capita income has nearly doubled during the Erdogan era — Turkey had the world's second fastest-growing economy after China last year.

Still, the former soccer player's with-us-or-against-us style of politics has been deeply polarizing. Much like socially conservative Republicans in the U.S., the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has a values agenda that alienates much of the traditionally European-oriented secular middle classes. Women should have three children, says Erdogan. Facebook is an "ugly technology" because it allows "immoral" content. Turkey's alcohol taxes are now among the highest in Europe, and the government has tried to ban people younger than 24 from places where liquor is sold. Thousands of websites are currently banned, while a controversial new law slated for August will require Turks to use one of four state-regulated filters to go online.

Under Erdogan, the police have become increasingly powerful and are allegedly dominated by members of a tightly knit religious brotherhood headed by the controversial Pennsylvania-based imam Fethullah Gulen. Two internationally acclaimed journalists investigating the brotherhood were detained and jailed in March and have yet to be tried. Journalists now assume that their phones are tapped — public leaks of private conversations have become commonplace. Earlier this month, a spate of sex tapes were released online showing senior members of a far-right opposition party in bed with women who were not their wives. Ten politicians resigned, casting doubt over the party's ability to cross a 10% national vote threshold on June 12 — if it fails to do so, those votes would go to the AKP, prompting speculation that the tapes were released in line with an agenda to boost the ruling party's power.

The rapid economic growth of the past decade has led to often brutal environmental desecration. Thousands of villagers along Turkey's verdant Black Sea and Aegean coasts have organized in protest against government plans to build hundreds of power plants on rivers that will upset ecological balances. Erdogan brands these groups "bandits." He is similarly dismissive of opponents of plans to build the country's first nuclear power plant in an earthquake-prone area — even though polls show a majority of Turks are concerned.

"He sees himself as a people's hero," wrote Ahmet Hakan, a popular columnist for the Hurriyet daily. "That's why he thinks he can lay down the law. He no longer pays any attention to critics in the media or intellectuals who object to his rhetoric. He doesn't care because he knows that those people don't translate into numbers and that his power of influence is now greater than theirs."

The question in the election is not whether Erdogan will win, but whether his party will gain the legislative supermajority that would allow it to pass laws without the need to compromise with other parties in order to win their support. And the answer to that question will shape the future of Turkish democracy. All parties agree that Turkey needs a new constitution to replace the current, less-than-democratic document drafted under the supervision of generals after a 1980 coup. But if Erdogan secures more than 330 out of 550 seats, it would allow him to draft a constitution based on his own vision, with no need to compromise. He has made little secret of his plans to concentrate executive power in a French- or Russian-style presidency, which would also allow him to seek another two terms in power. (Turkey's presidency is currently a largely symbolic position, like those of Germany or Italy.)

"It would be better for the country if he gets less than 330 votes," says Sahin Alpay, a politics professor at Bahcesehir University. "That would give Erdogan the message that if he wants to resolve the country's issues, he needs to work together with opposition parties. If he gets more than 330, he will attempt to do this on his own, based on his principles, which will not be healthy."

Erdogan is not by nature a consensus builder. But he finally has a serious challenger in the shape of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat with a strong anticorruption record who has revitalized the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, and made it more inclusive of minorities like the Kurds. The CHP is currently running at 25% to 28% of the vote. The question is whether, come June 12, Turkish voters can force the two men to work together.