Changing Times in Turkey

By Scott B. MacDonald

The November 3rd elections in Turkey represented a major change in the Southern European country's political landscape. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate spin-off of a previously banned Islamic party, clearly won the general election, capturing 34.4% of the vote. This gives it 363 seats, against a required majority of 276. Only one other party won parliamentary representation. The center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), with economic reformer Kemal Dervis, gained 19.5% of the vote and possibly 178 seats in parliament. This makes the Turkish parliament as a two-party affair for the first times in many decades. The former lead party in the outgoing administration, the Democratic Left of Prime Minister Bulent Ecivit, was reduced to 1% of the total vote. The sickly 77-year old leader reportedly stated: "I was not expecting this." Indeed, all three parties of the former government were voted out.

The election was hard-fought and centered around economic issues. The vast majority of Turks, it appears, was frustrated by the ongoing corruption of the country's longstanding secular parties and their squabbling leaders and was willing to try something different. In addition, many Turks blamed the Ecevit government for the country's economic troubles, which over the past two years have had a negative impact on the country's daily life. In contrast, the AKP ran on cleaning up government corruption and improving the life of the average Turk. It also emphasized that it would not seek to impose a religious regime on the people and that it would strongly support Turkey's membership into the European Union (which implies constitutional changes). Significantly, the old political parties were brutally eliminated at the polls, with none (so far) reaching the 10% threshold.

The November 2002 elections were a historical watershed in Turkish politics. The most obvious aspect of the election was that the AKP is the first political party to win enough seats to form a single-party majority government since 1987. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, Turkey's secular political parties, largely on the center-right, scratched and clawed each other over usually the personal differences of their leaders and failed to solidify into a strong secular alternative. This fragmentation left the secular part of the political spectrum weak and ultimately ineffectual, except as an alternative when the military was forced to look for allies vis-à-vis the country's Islamic parties. There is more to November's watershed. As Morgan Stanley's Turkish analyst Serhan Cevik noted:

  The decades of mismanagement, in which politicians used public-sector institutions to pass out patronage, has resulted in dramatic repercussions for the Turkish society. The alienated voters opted out of supporting ‘mainstream’ parties and consolidated the fragmented structure. The total share of votes gathered by ‘center-right’ parties that have actually played major roles in (mis) managing the country since the late 1980s literally disappeared to less than 20% in the latest parliamentary election, from 68.4% in 1983. As we expected, the parliamentary renewal ratio has increased to an unprecedented level, possibly exceeding the 1950, 1965 and 1983 elections, which marked Turkey’s rapid structural changes and liberalization periods. At last, the country’s political structure is catching up with the transformation process in economic and social areas.

The AKP has tough challenges ahead. First, it must fend off a state prosecutor's charge that it is a religious party, a claim - if "proven" - could ban the winning party. The party's leader, Tayyip Erdogan, has been careful in stating that the AKP will adhere to the secular principles outlined in the Turkish constitution. Erdogan himself cannot be prime minister as he was banned from the position based on earlier charges of Islamic sedition. Consequently, the AKP will have to work hard to find a solid, secular enough candidate for the prime minister's position, which will reduce concerns from the military, while making certain that a court decision does not ban the party. Considering the clear popularity of the vote, a court ruling banning the winning party would open the door to greater political uncertainty, something that is not in the interests of anyone.

Erdogan has also emphasized that the AKP will provide continuity in terms of economic policy, including support for the IMF stabilization program. Other party members have indicated that their party is ready to meet the IMF target on a primary budget surplus of 6.5% of GNP, though it would seek policies to address social problems. Indeed, one of the AKP leaders stated: “the existing IMF program has its weaknesses. The social dimension is missing. We will take balancing decisions. No one should be worried about economic management, which will be based on the principles of a free-market economy. Our aim is to reduce the state’s involvement in economic affairs.”

The path ahead for the AKP is filled with major challenges. While a breath of fresh air was badly needed in Turkish politics, the AKP must move with care. The party lacks experience in economic affairs and the sensitive political-social issues of headscarves and religious schools sit on the horizon for another round of debate. In addition, the clear AKP victory could inspire some of the party's more radical members to push for a more overt religious agenda. Erdogan and the moderate wing of the party must keep the radicals in check, considering the secular nature of the military and other elements of the establishment. In would be very easy to see battle lines being drawn over religious issues. Moreover, critics could easily point to the fact that the AKP did not win a majority of the country's popular vote, only 33%.

Weak coalition governments for almost two decades have dogged Turkey. Each of these failed in dealing with the deep-rooted structural problems facing the country. Hopefully, the AKP offers a break from the recent past, a chance to forge a new future based on the pressing need to deal with the oversized state role in the economy, large public sector debt, and high inflation. The banking sector is also problematic, requiring a firm hand in terms of closures, recapitalization, and privatization. The international environment complicates matters - the looming possibility of war in Iraq, Russian pressure over aid for the Chechens, and the war against terrorism. November 2002 now looks like a political watershed. Hopefully by November 2003 we can still say that is true. Tough decisions loom ahead for Turkey.

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