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TURKEY: Ahead of critical 2011 elections, Erdogan retains strong position

December 6, 2010 |  6:30 am

Turkey-erdogan-

As Turkey heads toward national elections next year, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) finds itself in a strong position. A major test for the AKP and opposition parties was the referendum in September — the results constituted a significant defeat for the opposition.

[Editor's note: Analysts of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are included among contributors to Babylon & Beyond. Carnegie is renowned for its political, economic and social analysis of the Middle East. Views represented are the author's own.]

Carnegie logo The opposition’s decision to turn the referendum into a vote on the AKP — a major strategic error — leaves the AKP in great shape for the elections slated for next summer. And if the current projections hold, the government will be in a good position to deal with Turkey’s unresolved internal issues, including the Kurdish question, and rewrite the constitution.

The AKP enjoys several advantages as next summer’s elections approach. Turkey’s strong economic performance has improved the AKP’s popularity, as the ruling party is widely credited for its market-friendly policies. Although unemployment remains high in Turkey, the country managed the global crisis better than most and enjoys excellent prospects compared with the rest of the world.

For its part, the opposition has yet to put forward a distinct and viable economic program with which it can dent the AKP’s commanding lead among voters reluctant to upset the current momentum. The current leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has been trying to put a new face on the party by bringing fresh blood into the party's leadership organs. He has met significant opposition every step of the way from the recalcitrant old guard. He deserves a good grade for effort, but the jury is out on whether he can accomplish a complete turnaround. He needs to transform the party from being a staunch defender of the status quo and the state to one that espouses true democratic aspirations.

The one major issue that could alter the trajectory of the elections is the Kurdish question. Although the AKP is unlikely to institute any significant changes or offer proposals on the Kurdish issue before next year’s vote, it clearly wants to contain interethnic violence. The government will need to carefully manage the situation.

Should the AKP win the elections convincingly, it would open the door for constitutional reform. Shortly after the referendum, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan committed himself to pushing for a complete overhaul of the current constitution after next year’s elections. This is welcome news. Turkey is in desperate need of a new constitution that brings the country more in line with Western models in Europe and the United States.

The current constitution is a straitjacket that privileges the state over the individual. Turkey is a country of laws, but not the rule of law — laws are applied in an arbitrary fashion. It is not the infraction of the law that determines whether an individual is to be charged but that individual’s position in society. And laws have always been applied harshly to deal with opponents of the regime.

Also, it’s an open secret that Erdogan ultimately wants to be president. Erdogan is thought to be interested in replacing the current Turkish parliamentary system — which concentrates all executive power in the hands of the parliament and its chosen cabinet — with a presidential system of sorts. A presidential system is not a foregone conclusion, however, as there is likely to be a great deal of opposition from within the AKP to such a radical change.

Before any changes can occur, though, the AKP must first win the national elections. Thanks to its better-than-expected showing in the September referendum and a feeble opposition, the party is now in great shape for next summer.

-- Henri J. Barkey

Photo: Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the opening of a new security office in Ankara, Turkey, on Dec. 1, 2010. Credit: Associated Press

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