25/06/2007 - Analysis
42.5 million Turks are being called to vote on 22nd July next to renew the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly, the only Chamber in Parliament. 7, 395 candidates, including 726 independents, representing 17 political parties in all are running in the general elections which are taking place four months earlier than planned after Parliament failed to elect the successor to Ahmet Necdet Sezer as President of the Republic in May last.
A review of the crisis in April and May
The possibility of seeing a member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) believed to be far too "Islamic", elected as President of the Republic was the source of a major political crisis in April. After the first round of voting on 27th April the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül (AKP), the only candidate running won 357 votes out of the 361 MPs present (the President of the Republic is elected in Turkey by secret ballot with a two-third majority of the votes in the Grand National Assembly i.e. 367 votes out of 550). The People's Republican Party (CHP), the main opposition party led by Deniz Baykal boycotted the election as did most of the MPs of the Motherland Party (ANATAVAN) and the Correct Way Party (DYP).
As it had announced before the election the People's Republican Party lodged an appeal with the court of justice to have the vote annulled because two thirds of the members of the Grand National Assembly were not physically present during the voting whilst according to the party the Constitution demands the presence of at least two thirds of MPs to validate the election of the President of the Republic.
On the evening of the first round General Yasar Büyükanit, chief of staff of the armed forces made an announcement to the press "if need be the armed forces will clearly express their position and will act accordingly. No one should doubt this. All of those who are against the ideas of the founder of our Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are enemies of the Republic and will remain so." This text was qualified as an "electronic coup d'état" by the military authorities. On May 1st the Constitutional Court seven of whose eleven members were appointed by the present President of the Republic Ahmet Necdet Sezer annulled the first round of the presidential election by 9 votes to 2, approving therefore the People's Republican Party to the great astonishment of a number of legal experts who argued that the Constitution simply demands a quorum for the presidential election to take place.
"The decision of the Constitutional Court caused a stalemate in the democratic parliamentary system. To solve this and put an end to the domination of a minority over the majority the solution for us lies in asking the nation, the people will make the best decisions," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who announced early general elections the date of which was established on 22nd July.
On 6th May another 1st round in the Presidential election was organised in the Grand National Assembly: Abdullah Gül, still the only candidate running, failed again to win the number of votes necessary to gain access to the supreme office.
The political parties in the opposition and one party from the Turkish elite, not necessarily democrats and often from nationalist and anti-Western environments successfully mobilised the people with regard to the threat, which in their eyes, weighed over secularity. In the weeks that followed demonstrations, firstly against the possible candidature of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Republic then against that Abdullah Gül and in favour of the defence of a secular Turkey took place across the country.
On 10th May last the government had Parliament adopt a constitutional reform (376 votes in favour 55 against) that modified the institutions and allows the organisation of general elections every four years (an MP's term in office is five years at present) as well as the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage for a mandate of five years, which is renewable once (instead of a single 7 year term in office). The law reduces the age of MPs' eligibility to 25 (versus 30 at present) and establishes the quorum at 184 votes for the adoption of texts.
On 25th May the President of the Republic Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed this constitutional reform believing that "the change in regime targeted by this reform was not necessary and was neither justified nor acceptable" but five days later Parliament re-approved the text by 370 votes in favour and 21 against. The Head of State, who incidentally, like the opposition parties, made an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of a series of amendments to the reform had no other choice but to promulgate the text and submit it to referendum.
On 2nd June the Grand National Assembly approved a text to reduce the length of time necessary for the organisation of a referendum from 120 days to 45 so that the general elections and the referendum on the mode of election of the head of state can both take place on the same day. The President of the Republic Ahmet Necdet Sezer rejected this measure on 18th June saying that "the simultaneous occurrence of the general elections and the referendum would be the source of confusion and make it difficult to achieve a fair result on this issue."
All opinion polls show that most Turks are in favour of the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage. The question has been the focus of a number of debates over the last few years and was rejected in 1989 under the presidency of Turgut Ozal (1989-1993), since most politicians believed that the country was not ready to commit itself to a presidential system. The concentration of power in the hands of one man continues to frighten many Turks who fear that it would be fatal to the country's democracy and that it would open the way to an authoritarian regime. Many want the country to strengthen its legal system prior to this so that there would be a true counterbalance before considering an election of a President of the Republic by the people.
The Turkish Political System
The Grand National Assembly, the only Chamber in Parliament, comprises 550 members elected very five years by proportional voting with a distribution of the largest remainder. The age required to stand is 30; the candidate must also have a minimum level of primary education. In 1995 constitutional amendments brought the number of MPs up to 550 and decreased the age of electoral consent to 18. To be represented in Parliament all political parties must put candidates forward in at least half of the country's provinces and win at least 10% of the votes cast nationally. The 10% threshold is particularly high and extremely damaging for the 15 million Kurdish citizens living in Turkey. Indeed the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) cannot hope to win 10% of the vote across all of Turkey.
"The Constitution talks of fair representation but Parliament only represents half of the electorate," stresses Orhan Miroglu, member of the Democratic Society Party. 6.2% of the electorate voted for the Democratic Society Party during the last general elections on 3rd November 2002 and up to 70% voted for it in the Kurdish regions but the party did not win a seat in Parliament. Around 45% of the electorate is not represented in the Grand National Assembly. To get around this obstacle many members of the Democratic Society Party therefore have chosen to put independent candidates forward in the general elections on 22nd July. They hope in this way to win around twenty seats in Parliament.
On 30th January last the European Court for Human Rights which had been addressed over the 10% threshold issue by two Turkish citizens, Mehmet Yumak and Resul Sadak maintained that this electoral threshold, the highest amongst the 46 members of the Council of Europe did not comprise a breach of electoral freedom. The European institution did however advise for the reduction of this threshold and recommended the launch of discussions between political parties on this question. The Turkish authorities modified the method of voting this year. Whilst beforehand independent candidates each had different voting slips they will now all feature on the same sheet which might lead to confusion in a country where most of the electorate is still illiterate, notably in the Kurdish areas.
The Constitution stipulates that the Prime Minister is someone who has been elected into Parliament and the electoral law makes a change of government obligatory during the electoral campaign for the general elections. Hence the Home, Justice and Transport Ministers simply have to be replaced by independent personalities and the other members of the government team have to be chosen from a group of MPs according to their importance.
At present there are only two political parties represented in Parliament:
- The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; created in 2001 on the base of a banned Islamic party (Prosperity Party, Refah), has 363 seats;
- The People's Republican Party (CHP), the main opposition party – centre left on the political scale, led by Deniz Baykal; it has 178 seats
The other political parties are as follows:
- the National Action Party (MHP), an ultranationalist party led by Devlet Bahceli ;
- the Correct Way Party (DP, formerly DYP), a centre-right movement led by Mehmet Agar;
- the Motherland Party (ANTAVAN, formerly ANAP), centre-right movement led by Erkan Memcu ;
- the Young Turks Party (GP, formerly Genc), a rightwing movement created by Cem Uzan, owner of the TV channel Star and the newspaper of the same name; he is often qualified as the Turkish Silvio Berlusconi;
- the Democratic Left Party (DSP), a social-democrat party led by Zeki Sezer ;
- the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the main Turkish Kurd party founded in 2005 after the merger between the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) and the Movement for a Democratic Society (DTH). Its two leaders, Ahmet Turk and Aysel Tugluk, were arrested and imprisoned in February last for having distributed flyers in Kurdish which strictly forbidden by law. Ahmet Turk was sentenced to six months in prison this year for having "glorified" Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), who is at present serving a life sentence for terrorist activities. The two Kurdish leaders appealed and were freed whilst awaiting sentence.
The Motherland Party and Correct Way Party both decided to merge but the attempt failed due to a lack of agreement on how candidates should be distributed on the electoral lists. The People's Republican Party merged with the Democratic Left Party. "Our people asked us to come together and we have done this. Now we are expecting this unity to find greater expression in the urns," declared the leader of the main opposition party, Deniz Baykal. The latter is standing in the town of Antalya where he will face Mehmet Ali Sahin (AKP). In addition to this Orsan Kunter Oymen, whom everyone believed to be the successor to Deniz Baykal chose not to participate in the elections after seeing that he was 14th on his party's list in Istanbul.
The Grand National Assembly comprises 24 women, i.e. 4.4% in all which places Turkey 123rd in the world ranking (189 countries) undertaken by the Inter parliamentary Union. The Justice and Development Party and the People's Republican Party have almost doubled the number of women candidates in these general elections in comparison with the election that took place on 3rd November 2002. The AKP is putting forward 62 women, 24 at the top of the lists. None of them wear the veil. The CHP is putting forward 53 women candidates, 12 of whom are likely to be elected; the Correct Way Party, is putting forward 58 women candidates (three of whom might reach Parliament) and the Turkish Youth Party is presenting 128 women 8 of whom are at the top of their lists.
The results of four years of government by the Justice and Development Party
In 2001, the GDP declined by 8.5%, inflation rose to 68.5% and the country's public and private debt lay at nearly 210 million euro ie 104% of the GDP. Kemal Dervis, former Vice-President of the World Bank became Economy and Treasury Minister launched a procedure to restructure the economy entirely; but he resigned from his post on 10th August 2002 just three months before the elections that saw the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party. After four years as the Head of Turkey's government Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who says he is a conservative democrat is able to demonstrate good economic results. Between 2002 and 2007 the GDP grew to 6.1%, income per capita increased growing from 2, 598 dollars in 2002 to 5, 477 dollars in 2006, debt has melted away and exports increased (94 billion dollars in 2006), inflation lies at 9.6%. Finally foreign investments rose to 9.6 billion dollars in 2005 and 19.8 billion last year. Unemployment remains high (10.4% of the working population) and a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line. The 11th June last Finance Minister Kemal Unakitan maintained that the Justice and Development Party would reduce social charges after the elections on 22nd July. In May the government also announced a reduction of ten points in VAT on tourist products.
On 12th June the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said: "Turkey's macroeconomic results over the last few years owe much to disciplined macroeconomic policies undertaken by the authorities, to the strengthening of the institutions and structural reforms, within an externally favourable environment, a stable political situation and firm commitment to the agreements made with the International Monetary Fund." "Turkey finds itself in a crucial moment. We shall continue along the road we started, towards more democracy, fairer distribution and greater freedom," declared Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 13th June last.
"When we came to power five years ago the members of the Justice and Development Party had to prove they were democrats and that they would respect the Turkish secular Constitution. But the Justice and Development Party is still on probation. Every day that goes by the part must again prove that it not is Islamic," stresses Emel Kurma, director of the Citizens Assembly in Helsinki. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sometimes frightened some Turks by showing his desire to remove the prohibition on wearing the veil in schools and public buildings or to support religious schools. During this term in office he also tried to make adultery a crime (before being called to order by the EU) and several towns governed by his party have approved measures to reduce the consumption of alcohol or they have renamed streets after famous Muslim celebrities. However the government has made major changes to both the Civil and Criminal Codes in favour of women's rights and they have introduced stricter sentences against men accused of raping their wives and for those involved in crimes of honour which are in fact simply the murder of women. "The Justice and Development Party is the true descendent of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk," stresses Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, "When he founded the modern republic in 1923 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk chose secularity because he believed that religion was an obstacle to progress. His aim was to modernise Turkey and to unite it with Europe, this is what we are doing, we are loyal to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's objectives."
"The Justice and Development Party lies in the centre of the political scale and rejects all extremism. We reject regional, religious or ethnic nationalism and we respond to requests for change on the part of the right and the left," maintains the Prime Minister. Talking on 16th June in Siirt, a town in the South-East of Turkey where he is the MP Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the People's Republican Party of having violated democracy when commenting on one of the greatest errors in history during the presidential election. "The only thing that the opposition knows how to do since it is afraid of the electorate and constantly calling on the Constitutional Court, it to cause crises."
The Electoral Campaign
After many questions on the place of religion in society a new theme now features at the heart of public debate: nationalism. "Are the Islamists loyal Turks?" This is the question that dominates the political arena. Indeed the growth in activities on the part of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) are a source of variety in the accusations of some opposition parties who say the government refuses to bring in the army in the North of Iraq (according to analysts, the region is used as a back-up base for Kurdish fighters) and that the government is under the control of the USA and the EU. In 2005 the Prime Minster tried to find a solution by involving the Kurdish population living in Iraq, an initiative that the Turkish armed forces did not appreciate greatly. Recep Tayyip Erdogan who was the first Turkish leader to acknowledge that the State had made mistakes during its previous negotiations with the Kurds had to give up his initiative.
In spite of the cease fire declared in October last the Kurdish Workers' Party who has been fighting since 1984 for the creation of a Kurdish State which would straddle Northern Iraq and the South of Turkey has intensified its operations in Turkey causing the deaths of and injuring dozens of Turkish soldiers. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is against armed intervention by the Turkish army beyond the border against the Kurdish Workers' Party bases in Iraq (at least until the general elections on 22nd July) saying that this would damage the Turkish economy and that it would lead to the immediate withdrawal of foreign investors from the country. "A decision by Parliament is needed to start a cross-border operation," said the Prime Minister on 6th June. For the time being the population seems to share Mr Erdogan's position; according to a poll published by Tempo, a minority of Turks says they favour military intervention. (39% versus 43% are against). Western powers such as the European Union and the USA are also against this believing that an intervention of the Turkish army would cause a disaster in the country and in the surrounding Arab States.
The People's Republican Party is leading a campaign on the government's inertia vis-à-vis the violence of the Kurdish Workers' Party. "Turkey needs political authority that would make terrorism its priority and that would know how to fight it," declared its leader, Deniz Baykal. The People's Republican Party is also setting itself up as a firm defender of republican values that it says are being threatened by the Justice and Development Party. The movement which boycotted the presidential election in April and caused the annulment of the election was the spearhead of the demonstrations that occurred for several weeks running.
The fundamental question facing Turkey apart from religion and nationalism seems to be that of modernising or rather modernising Kemalism. The Justice and Development Party covers a wide range of trends including some which would like to see Islam play a greater role in society. The Prime Minister has the difficult task of appeasing the secular camp and yet satisfying the more religious quarters, a mission he has not always succeeded in doing. "Presenting Turkey as if it has been divided into two is criminal. Even though our opinions and our life styles are different we are one country, one Turkey," he maintains. The number of Turks hoping to see the establishment of an Islamic State has decreased by 20% since 1999 to 9% and the percentage of women wearing the veil when they are out of their home a declined from 74% to 64% in the same period. But the wives of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister have not removed their veils. Likewise less than a quarter of Turks believe that secularity is threatened, 12% amongst the poorest, 40% amongst the richest and most qualified. The real issue at stake in the present crisis certainly involves rather the sharing of political and economic power between the old Kemalist elite and new elites from the Justice and Development Party rather than religion. "The debate has nothing to do with religion. It is a fight between 'petits bourgeois'. It is the result of a rise in power what we called "the Anatolian capital" or the "Green capital" that is rising up as the new elite against the old ones who have been governing the country for the last thirty years," says Baskin Oran, political expert and professor of international relations in Ankara. "These general elections are a decisive moment in Turkish history. They are a referendum on the way the Turkish people wants to go," says Fadi Hakura, a Turkish analyst in Chatham House.
According to the latest poll by Konda, published on 18th June last the Justice and Development Party is due to win 41.9% of the vote on 22nd July taking 307 seats ie the absolute majority. The People's Republican Party is credited with 22% of the vote and National Action Party 11%. 40 independent candidates might also enter the Grand National Assembly.
Results of the General Elections on 3rd November 2002
Participation rate: 79% (it is obligatory to vote in Turkey)
Source : Agence France Presse