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Maybe yes, maybe no: Parliamentary elections as game-changer for Turkey

Bassem Aly , Friday 5 Jun 2015
Turkey
A special forces police officer takes security measures as he stands on top of a building where the portraits of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan (L), Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and a Turkish flag are displayed in Istanbul, Turkey, June 3, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
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Turkish citizens have voted in three parliamentary elections since 2002, and each time the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won a majority. The coming election on 7 June will likely return the same result, a legislative majority for the AKP, but the political impact is expected to be quite different.

The ambitions of AKP-affiliated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan go far beyond maintaining the largest number of MPs for a new four-year term. Instead, Erdogan hopes to shift the political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential one through amending the constitution.

A change in the country’s political structure can take place via one of two ways. Gaining 330 seats in the 550-seat parliament will be enough for the AKP to change the constitution, but only after holding a public referendum. To escape the necessity of a referendum, its candidates will have to win 367 seats.

Yet – even in the eyes of analysts – nothing can be confirmed about the future of Turkey before elections results are officially out, given a host of economic and political considerations that create uncertainty.

A direct, clear and mostly unchallenged explanation for the presence of Turkish Islamists in power for the last 12 years is the success of the country’s economy, and the fact that they have ended the military grip on internal politics that had endured for decades.

Erdogan's policies have made Turkey among the top 20 economies in the world. Turkish per capita GDP, according to a Reuters, jumped from an average $3,600 in 2002 to $11,000 in 2013.

Relying on his popular base, Erdogan ran and won presidential elections on August 2014 after ending his premiership, which had lasted for more than a decade. He went further by appointing Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s former top diplomat, as prime minister.

However, with the country experiencing a series of economic difficulties, analysts believe that this major source of power for the AKP will not be the same as it has been in the past. Unemployment average rates reached 11 percent and the lira currency lost roughly 40 percent of its strength against the dollar in 2013 and 2014, The Economist reported last month.

“Although the Turkish people still don't think of any of them as strong alternatives to Erdogan, most electoral platforms of opposition parties largely focus on the economy in a bid to take advantage of the economic drawbacks of the AKP government,” Mohamed Abdel-Kader, Turkey researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online.

Arguing that the economic deterioration – in addition to the corruption scandal that surrounded government ministers in December 2013 – will definitely have a negative impact on the AKP's popularity, Abdel-Kader expects that Erdogan may call for early general elections if he doesn't secure enough votes required for the constitutional amendments he seeks to make.

Erdogan has been facing harsh accusations from his opponents of attempting to impose a stronghold over state institutions. They usually refer to the steps he adopted following the corruption scandals that involved four of his ministers.

Police personnel and judicial figures lost their posts as Erdogan claimed that an investigation of the issue signifies a “judicial coup” staged by Fethullah Gulen, a prominent cleric currently based in the United States and once an ally of Erdogan.

Police forces, furthermore, raided Turkey's Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu (STV) channel — known for their close connections to Gulen—last year, detaining dozens of journalists and workers. Those detained were charged with conspiring to overthrow Erdogan.

Abdel-Kader suggests that the AKP's pressure on society to cope with its approaches might lead to protests, underscoring the massive 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square that saw fierce clashes between protesters and security forces. In the view of the anti-Islamist opposition, increasing presidential powers will further contribute to Erdogan's hold over the state.

Nevertheless, the biggest threat for Erdogan in this election is not his escalatory moves against his opponents, but rather the rising pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which will join the race as a political party for the first time. Kurdish candidates used to previously run for elections as independents.

The HDP portrays itself as a party for “all of Turkey.” Turkish media reports said that HDP supporters hold both Turkish and party flags during their rallies, which could explain why the party is becoming more appealing to Turkish society, despite the history of Kurdish militancy.

Turkish polls showed that the HDP could reach the 10 percent vote threshold required to enter the parliament. Many news reports agree that if this takes place, it will be because HDP have taken seats from AKP members.

Some argue that even forming a majority AKP cabinet might be a challenge for the party this time. Cenk Sidar, a Washington-based Turkish analyst, told Ahram Online that the HDP is gaining significant popularity and the “AKP is aware of it.”

“In my opinion, the HDP would succeed to surpass the threshold by a little margin, while the Republican People's Party (CHP) would get 26-28 percent of the votes,” said Sidar. The Kurdish problem might come up again on the new government’s agenda if the political representation of the HDP reaches higher levels.

This approach is different from that of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is closely linked to the HDP. The PKK, led by Abdullah Ocalan, has been in clashes with Turkish forces since the 1980s.

A ceasefire agreement has been active for two years between Turkey and the PKK after successful negotiations with Ocalan. On July 2014, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that legalised talks with the PKK. But since then, progress has stalled.
 

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