Turkey: Eyes on a higher prize

The country’s ruling AKP needs a large majority to carry out a constitutional overhaul

Recep Tayyip Erdogan timed his arrival for a rally last Friday in Konya, a prospering city in Turkey’s conservative heart of Anatolia, just after a high-speed train glided into town for the first time. He was rewarded by a thunderous clamour from tens of thousands of his Justice and Development party (AKP) supporters, massed under two giant banners. One was of the new rail link to Ankara, the capital. In the other, the prime minister was portrayed alongside one of the last Ottoman sultans.

All but certain to be re-elected for a third consecutive term in a general election on Sunday, the former mayor of Istanbul – once jailed as an Islamist agitator by a secularist establishment forged in the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic – is lord of all he surveys. No contemporary politician in Turkey matches his stature.

Since coming to power in 2002 at the head of the neo-Islamist AKP, in a Nato nation knocking at the European Union’s door, Mr Erdogan can justifiably claim to have transformed Turkey. “What he has accomplished in this country is astonishing,” says one western ambassador. Now, the question is whether he can curb what even admirers acknowledge are authoritarian instincts, in order to build a consensus behind a more democratic constitution – a social contract for 21st-century Turkey.

Admitted to the ante-room of the EU as a candidate for membership in 2004, the government astutely used the unifying idea of Europe as an engine of reform, widening freedom of expression and association and minority rights while curbing the power of the military, which until then had reserved the right to make and break governments.

EU accession – now stalled mainly by objections from France and Germany – provided the glue of political cohesion during Turkey’s transition. The Kemalist army saw in it the fulfilment of the European vocation that Ataturk envisaged for Turkey, while the AKP saw in the democratic club rules of the EU a shield against the generals. “Europe has been useful to them – and, as even Erdogan would admit, in facing down the military,” says one western ambassador

The last election in 2007 was overshadowed by a constitutional crisis triggered by the army’s rejection of Abdullah Gul, then the AKP’s foreign minister, as president. Mr Erdogan called its bluff and went to the people, raising his party’s tally from 34 per cent in 2002 to 47 per cent on an 84 per cent turnout – not so much a landslide as an avalanche. Now, one in every 10 of Turkey’s previously overmighty generals is behind bars, as magistrates investigate a baroque series of alleged coup plots.

The social transformation of Turkey has also been startling. The AKP’s success represents the emergence of a new establishment based on the socially conservative, religiously observant but dynamic and entrepreneurial middle class of central Anatolia, who now demand their rightful share in power, hitherto monopolised by the Kemalist secular elite.

The new AKP elites, with building contractors and energy moguls to the fore, have made capitalism more respectable. They have also helped change Turkey physically, with gleaming new schools, hospitals, highways and rail services, more airports and domestic airlines that compete with buses, and above all the rise of dozens of Anatolian towns and cities, 60 of which the government has now connected to the natural gas network as it knits the country into a more integrated economy.

Though the economy is showing signs of overheating, with a heterodox monetary policy doing little to curb runaway private credit growth, gross domestic product has tripled in size under AKP rule, per capita income has doubled and trade and foreign investment have ballooned. The hold-up in the EU accession process, moreover, has not slowed Turkey’s economic integration into Europe. Nearly 13,000 European companies are present, availing themselves of Turkish engineering skills. “Turkey is now a substantial element in our global economic competitiveness,” observes Marc Pierini, the EU’s ambassador to Ankara.

These achievements alone would probably be enough to get Mr Erdogan re-elected but his rapport with voters, in rapturous rallies across the country, remains extraordinary. “Thanks to him doctors treat us properly now,” says Ismail, aged 76, a retired civil servant in Konya: “Thank God for Tayyip Erdogan.”

In formal speeches the prime minister can appear wooden. But on the campaign trail he ignites. “Erdogan is the common man,” says Soli Ozel, a columnist and academic. “There are no filters.”

“He wants to be recognised as the creator of the new Turkey,” says Mustafa Akyoli, a columnist sympathetic to but not uncritical of the AKP – “a more democratic country at peace with its Muslim identity”.

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The question now is whether Mr Erdogan can be the architect of a new national consensus, a democratic dispensation with civil society at its heart and under the rule of law – or whether he will try to use his victory to write a constitution in his own image, before moving into a presidency that he aims to endow with executive powers.

The signals are mixed. After decisively winning a referendum last September that approved controversial changes in the appointment of judges, Mr Erdogan went on television to reassure citizens that he had “never wished to be a sultan”. But he does want to be a president, and one with much more than the largely ceremonial power the office now holds. “He thinks a presidential system is better for Turkey, and now there will be direct elections [to the presidency, probably in 2014] it is a logical development,” says an Erdogan aide.

“He obviously wants to empower the presidency, maybe along French lines, but whether he can do that is an open question,” says Mr Akyoli. Even inside his own party, “they don’t want to see him as the only leader in Turkey”.

Mr Erdogan’s presidential ambitions, and indeed the tenor of the new constitution, will depend on the size of his majority. If the centre-left Republican People’s party (CHP) under Kemal Kilicdaroglu emerges as a credible opposition, the government will have to negotiate. But the AKP’s margin will also depend on the fortunes of the ultra-nationalist MHP party – 10 of whose leaders had to resign last month after sex videos of them appeared on the internet. Polls suggest that this dirty tricks campaign, whoever was behind it, has backfired and will help lift the MHP over the high threshold (of 10 per cent of the votes) to enter parliament.

“If they have to haggle, then parliament will be in the driving seat,” says Mr Ozel. But many experts worry about pervasive political intolerance, common to all parties but worsened by Mr Erdogan’s imperious and polarising tone, for example, by insistently reminding the Sunni majority that Mr Kilicdaroglu comes from the Alevi minority. “Concession is a word with negative connotations in Turkish, almost akin to a ‘sell-out’. What operates most here is a doctrine of pre-emptive intolerance,” says Mr Akyoli.

“This constitution is the most important document for how Turkey is going to do in the 21st century,” says Cengiz Aktar, an academic and writer. “What is needed is a new social contract and for that you need a consensus.”

Yet while all parties are tacking to the centre, that does not imply a consensus. “Of course everyone wants the middle ground, but mainly to impose their vision on it,” says Semih Idiz, an Ankara-based columnist. “There’s a postmodern civil war going on in this country. Erdogan has not been a unifying factor. He didn’t keep his promise to represent everyone.”

The jailing of nearly 60 journalists, as well as pressure on off-message media organisations such as the Dogan group, hit by multi-billion dollar tax fines it says are politically inspired, are symptoms of this, critics say. Yet a high level of consensus and statecraft will be needed to deal with the demand by Kurds for cultural and educational rights and a degree of self-rule that many Turks see as the slippery slope to separatism.

The AKP was the first Turkish party to raise the Kurdish question, says Yavuz Baydar, a writer and broadcaster, but now “it thinks the problem is soluble through the supra-identity of Islam”. He warns that the current Kurdish leaders are “the last generation we can communicate with”. Most Turks prefer to have the Kurds fighting in parliament rather than fighting in the mountains, but few have a sense of what they are fighting for. “We don’t know how to deal with conflict resolution. We know how to deal with conflicts,” says Mr Aktar. “I’m not sure whether we or any other government can meet these high expectations” held by the Kurds, warns a senior AKP official. “Federalism is not going to happen in this country.”

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Kurdish grievances will be at the top of the new government’s agenda but they are far from the only issue. The army may be chastened but it still operates as a caste, and under Article 35 of the country’s Internal Service Law – the legal pretext for the last coup in 1980 – it still has the right to meddle in politics. “Turkey needs a new democratic order that puts the army in its allotted place under civilian rule,” says Mr Baydar.

Whether presidential or parliamentary government is better suited to deal with this magnitude of challenges will dominate debate as much as the issues themselves. The EU, the load-bearing bridge for the first stages of Turkey’s transition, has meanwhile lost its leverage with the stalling of accession talks. As one European ambassador observes: “You are only the engine of reform as long as the engine is running.”

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Kemalist elites give way to an inclusive liberal agenda

Sunday’s election will establish whether competition has returned to Turkish politics. The real drama of the near decade in power of the Justice and Development party (AKP) is not its alleged hidden agenda – claims by the metropolitan elites that it is Islamising secular Turkey by stealth – but the absence of a credible opposition. That could now change if the Republican People’s party (CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turkish republic, gets close to 30 per cent of the vote.

Until last year, the CHP represented little more than the Kemalist elites’ sense of entitlement. As leader, Deniz Baykal presided over a shrinking cult for his outsize ego. Rudderless and remote, the party was unelectable to the point that its sole tactic was to incite the army and the courts to win back what it kept losing at the ballot box. In a WikiLeaked cable Eric Edelman, US ambassador in 2004, said the CHP amounted to “no more than a bunch of elitist ankle-biters” notable for their “routine whine”.

Then, last year, after compromising pictures of Mr Baykal appeared on the internet, he was replaced by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an ascetic civil servant who had challenged the AKP on corruption. The CHP started to champion the rights of individuals and minorities, such as the Kurds of the smouldering south-east.

“The old CHP was wedded to the sanctity of the state and had nothing to say on individual or minority rights,” says Sinan Ulgen of Edam, a liberal think-tank in Istanbul. “This time we will have an opposition that will not reflexively oppose any movement on the Kurdish question, and will be much more pro-European.”

Mustafa Akyoli, a columnist, talks of a post-Kemalist CHP, in the same way that the AKP has moved to a sort of post-Islamist, Muslim equivalent of Christian democracy. “The CHP used to be the party of the state. Under Kemal Kilicdaroglu it is becoming a party of the people,” he says. “They woke up to the fact that they could no longer rely on the generals and the judges and that if they want to win power they have to win an election.”

Mr Baykal’s CHP won 21 per cent to the AKP’s 47 per cent at the 2007 general election. In the 2009 contest for mayor of Istanbul – a position once held by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP prime minister – Mr Kilicdaroglu got 38 per cent, and in last September’s referendum on constitutional amendments opposed by the CHP but won by the AKP, the No vote in Istanbul was 45 per cent.

Yet Mr Kilicdaroglu has struggled not only against the AKP but to control and democratise his party. “His base is too narrow,” says Yavuz Baydar, a liberal commentator. But the language has changed: he no longer speaks about the country sinking under sharia [Islamic law].”

While Mr Kilicdaroglu has found the target on issues from social security reform to shorter military service, his choice of candidates includes a score of old-guard Kemalists, including three in jail accused of plotting coups. “Now he won’t know what exactly people voted for,” says Mr Baydar.

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