On the eve of Turkey’s parliamentary elections, Hurriyet, a daily paper in Ankara, predicted that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would not get more than 30 percent of the popular vote. In the election on July 22, the AKP increased its vote by 12 percentage points to 46.5 percent from a crowded field of 14 political parties and 700 independent candidates. Despite increasing its share of the electorate’s votes, the AKP’s seats declined slightly to 341 from the 354 it had had in the outgoing parliament of 550. Only two other parties, both secular and rightwing—the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—got into parliament by securing the 10 percent threshold. The CHP and its alliance partner, the DSP, obtained 111 seats; the MHP got 71. Twenty-four independents, all of them Kurds, also made it to parliament. The voter-turnout, at 84.7 percent, was second only to that of 1987, when 93.5 percent of the electorate cast their ballots.
Despite a hysterical campaign by opposition parties (Deniz Baykal, leader of the CHP, had declared during the campaign that he would jump into the Aegean Sea and swim to Rhode Island if the AKP were re-elected) the AKP stuck to its guns, refusing to respond to such taunts. After casting his vote, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pic) appealed for unity and said that his party would represent all Turks, regardless of the party they had voted for. “We are the strongest advocates of a democratic, secular, social state governed by the rule of law,” Erdogan said. “I call on all leaders not to close their doors. Let’s get around a table and discuss the problems of Turkey’s democracy and make the rule of law reign.”
The AKP not only won convincingly but has got MPs in all the provinces except Igdir, improving on its performance in 2002, when it failed to secure any deputies from either Tunceli or Igdir. The AKP came first in 68 provinces and was the clear winner in all the major cities: Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. Some parties, such as the Democratic Party of Mehmet Agar, were wiped out. After pre-election merger efforts with the Motherland Party (ANAVATAN) failed, the DP was forced to fight alone, securing only 5.4 percent of the vote. This is much lower than the 9.5 percent it had secured in 2002. Its leader, Mehmet Agar, resigned when he realised the depth of the humiliation his party had suffered.
With the secular parties almost eliminated, old politicians, such as former prime ministers Tansu Ciller of the True Path Party (DYP) and Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party, and former president Suleyman Demirel, currently in the Republican People’s Party, have re-emerged from the political wilderness. They hope to lead Turkey’s secular camp, no doubt with help from the ever-intrusive military and the West. Yilmaz was taken to court by the AKP on corruption charges but acquitted. Yilmaz has returned to parliament in hopes of uniting the secular right. The DP, known as the DYP in the 2002 election, Cem Uzan’s Young Party (GP), the Felicity Party (SP), the Workers’ Party (IP), the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) and the People’s Ascent Party (HYP) have all virtually disappeared.
With the secularists struggling to reinvent themselves, Turkey’s parliament has to deal with the more serious issue of electing a president. It is one of the ironies of Turkish politics that the incumbent, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, has outlived his seven-year term—it ended on May 16—but because of the political crisis he engineered, he continues to occupy the presidency. Erdogan was forced to call an early election because the secularists subverted the parliamentary process to frustrate the election of the AKP candidate, Abdullah Gul, as president. They challenged the parliament’s constitutionality because it was 10 votes short of a two-third majority of 367 votes on the first ballot; both the president and the Constitutional Court backed them, thereby precipitating a political crisis. Sezer also vetoed a bill that called for electing the president through a direct vote; at present the parliament elects the president but he is answerable to no one. Before dissolution, the parliament again passed the same bill. This time Sezer could not veto it, so he petitioned the Constitutional Court to declare it unconstitutional. The court refused, paving way for a referendum on the question of electing the president directly for a five-year term that can be renewed for another five.
All this may turn out to be academic if the newly-elected MPs muster enough courage and show common sense to respect the wishes of the people. With the opposition parties in disarray and with at least 24 independent deputies, there is a chance that the AKP candidate for the presidency will secure the necessary two-thirds vote on the first ballot, according to the Ankara daily Zaman (July 23). This paper also pointed out that the Republican Party is left with only 98 seats after the Democratic Left Party’s (DSP) departure from its ranks. Deputies from the DSP, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and independents all but guarantee that the two-thirds requirement for electing the president will be met. How this will actually work out will become clear in the first two weeks of August during the election of the assembly speaker. If things work out well, there may be hope that the presidential election will also go smoothly. If not, Turks may head for the polls again within a few months, a prospect not many relish so soon after the last round.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has done well economically. Inflation has been brought down to single digits and the country’s exports have soared. While continuing to defer to the military, the self-appointed guardians of Kemalism, Turkey’s official creed, and to the secular president, he has carefully built a political base of his own. The economic boom has been so impressive that Istanbul, with its annual income of $133 billion, surpasses 127 countries in the world. Ankara surpasses 97 countries, according to research by Price Waterhouse Cooper, a well-known accounting firm.
Although economically Turkey has done well, politically Erdogan has had to make painful compromises. The most recent example is that of how the election of the president was subverted. He has had to abandon Islamic principles in order not to offend secular sentiment. Turkey is one of the few countries in the Muslim world that maintains close relations withIsrael. In 1997, as mayor of Istanbul, he was briefly imprisoned for reciting a poem considered too Islamic by the military. The occasion was a rally to draw attention to the continued occupation of al-Quds (Jerusalem) by the zionists. He lost his position as mayor and his political rights as a result. Upon his release from prison, he changed his stance; instead of confronting the military and the secularists, he decided to defer to them. In 2001 he broke with his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, and founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he described as “democratic conservative” and far from being against secularism. He has repeated his allegiance to secularism and to Mustafa Kemal, founder of Turkey’s secular religion, even though the vast majority of Turks are tired of having this alien ideology thrust down their throats.
Despite repeated elections, Turkey is little more than a military state because it is not politicians but the men in army uniform who ultimately decide what policies the state must pursue. Relations with Israel is one area, those with the US another, although a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre has found that only 9 percent of Turks approve of the US. Like most dictatorships—whether military or civilian—in the Muslim world, Turkey continues to follow a policy of appeasement of the US. To gauge the depth of its subservience to Uncle Sam, consider this: Turkey’s airline adheres to the US’s passenger watch-list. There are few countries in the world that implement Washington’s “anti-terrorist” policies so faithfully.