Turks will be going to the polls this Sunday to choose their next government. There is little uncertainty about the outcome. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its charismatic leader, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are set to gain the backing of the Turkish population for a third consecutive term in power. The real uncertainty lies in the margin of victory the AKP will obtain. It is this that will ultimately shape the near term political climate of the country.
During the electoral campaign, Erdogan clearly stated his desire to change the Turkish constitution and introduce a U.S. or French style presidential system. That will only be possible if the AKP gets a constitutional majority of two thirds of the seats in the Turkish Parliament. The latest opinion polls tend to suggest that this scenario is unlikely. A fallback position for the Turkish leader would be to win 330 seats, enabling him to have the required constitutional amendment put to a referendum. A few days before the actual vote, this seems to be the ruling party’s main political objective.
What may be good for the AKP, however, may not necessarily be good for Turkish democracy. The experience of the previous constitutional amendments in September 2010 clearly demonstrated that Turkey’s ruling party tends to rely on its own majority rather than seek a consensus to implement even basic changes to the country’s constitutional order. A smaller majority would oblige the AKP to enter into substantive negotiations with the opposition for the desired changes and by the same token help to decrease the polarization of the country. It would also allay fears about the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Turkey’s Prime Minister.
In fact, the most interesting aspect of this electoral cycle has been the transformation of the political opposition. In past years, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) relied heavily on support from within the army and the Turkish judiciary to attempt to counter the influence of the AKP. The CHP’s main message to the Turkish electorate was about the safeguarding of Republican values and in particular secularism. As a result, the CHP was only able to consolidate its support among the hard core Kemalists. However, it failed to provide hope to and, therefore, to gain the support of, a large part of the aspirational society that Turkey has now become. This structural deficiency disabled the CHP from ever becoming a credible alternative to the ruling AKP. In short, Turkish democracy suffered from this lack of a close and imminent threat to the AKP’s rule.
With Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its new leader, the CHP is in the process of a major shift. The political rhetoric has become more liberal, less nationalistic and more in tune with the values of social democracy. This transformation will be consolidated if the CHP ends up increasing its share of the popular vote from the 22% it received in the elections in 2007.
Such a recalibration of the political scene in Turkey would fundamentally alter domestic dynamics. The country suffered from a loss of momentum in democratic reforms as well as a rising disinterest in Europe. This was as much due to the shifting priorities of the ruling party as the total inability of the political opposition to pressure the government on its failure to deliver on these critical issues.
After the elections however, a real prospect of collaboration between the ruling AKP and the opposition CHP for overhauling Turkey’s constitution, improving fundamental freedoms and the rights of minorities and rejuvenating the European dream will emerge.
Such a change in the political constellation would also provide an invaluable window of opportunity for the EU to re-engage Turkey and its main political actors so as to redress the erosion of interest in EU accession that is currently dooming membership negotiations to failure.