16/07/2007 - D-7
On 22nd July next 42.5 million Turkish voters will renew the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly, the only Chamber in Parliament. These general elections, in which 14 political parties will take part, are four months early after Parliament failed to elect a successor to Ahmet Necdet Sezer as President of the Republic last May. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in office for the past five years, is the favourite in this election. The only doubts remaining are about the extent of the victory (will he be able to govern alone?) and the number of parties that will take seats in Parliament. To be represented in the Grand National Assembly all political parties must put candidates forward in at least half of the country's provinces and win a minimum of 10% of the votes cast nationally, a very high threshold which is extremely damaging to the 15 million Kurds living in Turkey.
On 5th July last to everyone's surprise the Constitutional Court rejected the appeal made by the Head of State for the annulment of a series of amendments to the constitutional reform approved by Parliament on 10th May last by 376 votes in favour, 55 against (and adopted on 30th May by 370 votes in favour and 21 against, after the veto placed by the President of the Republic, Ahmet Necdet Sezer). The judges considered that this reform "was not anti-constitutional" according to the Court's Vice-President Hasim Kilic. The constitutional reform modifies the institutions and enables the organisation of general elections every four years (the parliamentary term in office stands at five years at present) likewise the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage for a five year term in office renewable once (instead of the present single term in office of 7 years). The text lowers the age of eligibility to 25 years (instead of the present 30) and establishes the vital quorum for the approval of legal texts at 184 votes. The opposition parties rose up against this reform criticising the way in which the amendments had been prepared and the lack of discussion of their content and finally their hasty adoption.
The constitutional reform and therefore the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage – will be submitted to referendum, a popular consultation that according to electoral law can only be organised on the first Sunday following a 120 day period i.e. 21st October next. The decision taken by the Constitutional Court concludes in part the crisis that started in April during the election of the successor to the Head of State, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. "Like the Prime Minister and the MPs the President of the Republic will be appointed by the people," declared Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Samsun on 6th July.
The next Head of State will however still be elected by indirect suffrage. His appointment will be the first thing that Parliament will have to tackle after the election on 22nd July.
It is with this in mind that the Prime Minister is insisting on the need for his party to win two thirds of the seats (i.e. 367) in the Grand National Assembly, the minimum number to undertake the election of the President of the Republic according to the decision taken by the Constitutional Court on 1st May last. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is leading a campaign on the need for Turkey's stability which can only be guaranteed by a strong, united government i.e. one that is built around one party only. "Our recent past shows that Turkey has always suffered when it was led by coalition governments. As a result of this I believe that we need a government led by one party only enabling Turkey to move forwards and for the next five years to experience a period as rich as the one that has just passed" said State Minister and Turkey's chief negotiator for the European Union – Ali Babacan on 8th July last. "Economic and political stability can only be ensured by a government led by one party," added Bülent Arinc, parliament's spokesman.
The AKP's electoral platform establishes four main objectives for the country: to boost relations with neighbouring States, to enhance the country's regional position, to turn Turkey into a world player, to undertake active diplomacy in the Cypriot conflict and finally to continue negotiations to take Turkey towards membership of the EU. The Prime Minister is relying on his economic and social results and promises to continue the structural reforms that were started in 2002. "We have standardised macro-economic equilibrium and now we aim to do the same with regard to micro-economics. Our goal is to achieve an income per capita of 10,000 dollars by 2013, along with a GDP of 800 billion dollars and exports to a total of 200 billion dollars," declared Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The excellent results of economic growth in the first quarter of 2007 (6.7% GDP growth, i.e. 1.2 points more than originally planned) can only help support the government. The inflation rate however rose to 8.6% in June over the last twelve months, well over the 5% objective established by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). "If voters look at what has been done they will vote for the AKP which has both stabilised and strengthened the economy, even though this has not improved the situation of the average Turkish citizen," maintained Omer Faruk Genckaya, professor of political science at the University of Bilkent in Ankara.
Nine outgoing AKP MPs including State Minister Abdullatif Sener have chosen not to stand again. 54, including Industry Minister Ali Coskun did not really have the choice since the Prime Minister wanted to replace half of the outgoing representatives of his party with new personalities. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the candidate running in Istanbul where his main adversary will be Ilhan Kesici (People's Republican Party CHP).
The AKP has received the support of the Patriarch Mesrob II, the spiritual leader of the Armenians of Turkey who has said that he will vote for the "Justice and Development Party which is the most moderate and least nationalist than the other parties when it addressees the minorities. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government listens to us, we shall vote for the AKP in the next general elections," he stressed in an interview with the German weekly, Der Spiegel. These words have divided the Armenian community. Luiz Bakar, the Patriarch's spokesperson had to specify that Mesrob II was only expressing his personal opinion and that he was not standing as the community's political representative. We should note that the Christian communities of Turkey were close to the People's Republican Party for a long time but they accuse it of being nationalist and are now ready in their majority to vote for the Justice and Development Party.
The opposition is extremely fragmented. The People's Republican Party, a centre-left party has focussed its campaign on education, healthcare and the country's prosperity during its electoral campaign entitled "Programme for the restoration and development of Turkey". If they win "a new Turkey will emerge in the next two weeks. Everything will change," promised the party's leader, Deniz Baykal on 11th July in a speech delivered in Mersin. For its part the Just Way Party (DP), a centre-right party has promised if it wins, to modify the Constitution in order to guarantee better rights for civil society, the independence of justice and freedom of the press. Its leader, Mehmet Agar, declared that the best government coalition would be to rally his own party, the People's Republican Party with the National Action Party (MHP), an extremely nationalist movement led by Devlet Bahceli. The latter, when interviewed about a possible government coalition answered: "Our aim is to be alone in government." Finally the Mother Country Party (ANTAVAN), a centre-right party has suffered a few problems since 5th July when some of its leaders, including the leader of the parliamentary group, Muzaffer Kurtulmusoglu, asked the party's leader Erkan Memcu to resign after the failure of the party's merger with the True Path Party in time for the elections on 22nd July.
For the first time in the country many of the political parties have campaigned on the Internet notably on www.youtube.com, which was suspended for a time for having hosted a video which the Turkish authorities said insulted Kemal Atatürk. The People's Republican Party offers 4,000 videos on this site, the Justice and Development Party, 3,000 and the National Action Party, 1,000.
Just one week before the general elections the attacks undertaken by the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in the south-east of the country (using northern Iraq as a base for its fighters) are the focus of the news. According to the Turkish armed forces 67 soldiers and 110 rebels have been killed since the start of the year. General Yasar Büyükanit, head of the armed forces expressly requested the establishment of guidelines for a military incursion into Northern Iraq to put an end to the rebel attacks. He also called on the population to demonstrate against the violence of the Kurdish Workers' Party. On 30th June 5000 people came out onto the streets of Ankara to condemn the Kurd attacks and to accuse the USA for their inertia with regard to this situation. In many rallies slogans accusing the Justice and Development party of working with the Kurdish Workers' Party have been seen.
For a long time the government has promoted negotiation and caution with regard to the attacks made by the Kurd separatists – with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking of a "problem internal to Turkey" maintaining that an military incursion into Iraq could only be planned as an ultimate measure. "Government responsibility stops us from thinking: "we shall invade Northern Iraq and voters will choose us." "We shall never make a cross border operation a part of our electoral campaign," declared Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül in June. Just a few days ago he did say however on the private TV channel NTV: "We have decided on the means to act, everything is clear. We know what to do and when. The army and the government have agreed on the details of a cross border operation against the Kurdish rebels based in Iraq."
On 9th July Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke on the subject on the TV. He maintained that Turkey would take the necessary measures if the USA did not keep their promise, i.e. if they did not intervene to put a stop to the Kurdish rebellion. "We have observed with great sadness that the Americans are extremely quiet whilst the Turks are fighting against terrorism. They promised us things and they must honour those promises. If this does not happen we shall take the situation in hand. After the elections the situation will be re-assessed," he said.
Accession to the EU has not really been addressed during the electoral campaign. On 26th June last two new negotiation chapters dedicated to statistics and financial control were opened. The negotiation process that started in June 2006 with the opening of the first chapter (out of a total of 35) dedicated to science and technology is running late and was partially suspended due to the veto imposed by the Republic of Cyprus in December 2006 after Turkey refused to open its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and airplanes, a refusal justified by Ankara by the continued blockage against the Northern part of the island. For the time being only four chapters have been opened (the second "enterprise and industry policy" in March 2007) and eight have been frozen.
The President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his opposition to the opening of the chapter on economic and monetary policy on 26th June. The Head of State, who is against Turkey's accession to the EU and who would like to establish a privileged partnership wants to convince his European counterparts of the need for a debate on Europe's borders before the end of the year. "Normally it would imply a casus belli", says Cengiz Aktar, a specialist on European issues at the University of Bahcesehir in Istanbul, "but the government, which is busy with the electoral campaign, does not know how to react, and finds itself trapped." This setback does however perhaps mean an advantage to the anti-Europeans who do not miss any opportunity to accuse the government of constantly giving in to the demands made of it by Brussels. All opinion polls undertaken over the last few months show a collapse in pro-European feelings, with the EU's procrastination finally discouraging an increasing number of Turks.
The official campaign started on 15th July and will end on 21st in the evening. Each of the 14 political parties has had 10 minutes air time on TV and radio over two days. The Justice and Development Party and the People's Republican Party, which are represented in Parliament, will enjoy an additional 50 and 40 minutes respectively.
All opinion polls have announced the victory of the Justice and Development Party in the general elections on 22nd July next. However these differ with regard to the percentage that the Prime Minister's party might win. According to a survey published at the beginning of July by Raymond James Securities, the Justice and Development Party is due to win 41.1% of the vote versus 16.5% for the People's Republican Party and 12.7% for the National Action Party which will be the only three parties to enter the Grand National Assembly. The AKP would fail in winning 367 seats, i.e. a two thirds majority in Parliament.
Another poll undertaken by GENAR in June showed that one third of the young people (aged 18-24) maintained they would vote for the Justice and Development Party (34.7%). Likewise three quarters of those who voted for the AKP in the last election on 3rd November 2002 were prepared to repeat the same vote on 22nd July next (74%).