Ausgabe 27/2007

Crunch Elections in Turkey Erdogan Fights for the Center

Two months after a bungled presidential poll, Turkey is heading towards fresh parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given his conservative Islamic party a new image in an attempt to appeal to centrist voters. But his biggest threat is from the nationalists on the right.

By in Istanbul

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a meeting of the AKP in Istanbul.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a meeting of the AKP in Istanbul.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the headquarters of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), a special elevator is waiting just for him. The luxury carpeted lift whisks the party chairman straight up to the ninth floor, where he can walk across a marble floor to his office.

"Office" is perhaps too small a word for Erdogan's chambers. Replete with gold-plated glass cabinets, massive chandeliers, shimmering curtains and even purple sofas with Ottoman-style cushions, Erdogan’s office -- dubbed "The Sultan’s Chamber" by the Turkish press -- has more in common with the presidential suite in an expensive hotel than with the average workplace.

The AKP spent some €20 million on its new headquarters in Ankara, which opened just two weeks ago. It's the kind of place a party invests in when it doesn’t expect to be pushed out of power any time soon -- a building suitable for a party which is oozing confidence.

The AKP hasn’t lost its cockiness heading into the early parliamentary elections on July 22 either, even if those elections came about through an embarrassing political debacle. The government was forced to call the poll after the opposition thwarted the election of the AKP presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, in early May.

The fiasco in parliament pushed the country into a political crisis -- mostly because of the reaction of the powerful Turkish military. The leadership of the armed forces intervened late at night on April 27, sending a written statement making their “concern” about Gül’s candidacy clear. Many in Turkey interpreted this as a clear threat of a military coup, with the aim of limiting the AKP’s growing influence.

Out of the Darkness

And so the election on July 22 will be a true test for Turkey’s democracy, showing whether the candidate for European Union membership can free itself from political crisis. It will determine if the economic upswing and the EU-oriented policies of the past few years continue or whether a period of stagnation -- or even turbulence -- is beginning.

Erdogan doesn’t seem to have any doubts that he can handle the challenges he’s facing. “I’m convinced that the nation will give us its trust, since we’ve taken the country out of the darkness and into the light,” says the prime minister.

It’s a clear reference to how Erdogan’s AKP came to power a few years ago after the weak government of aged and ailing ex-premier Bülent Ecevit was unable to tackle the deep financial crisis that Turkey was mired in at the time. The AKP took over the rudder in November 2002 and quickly passed hundreds of reforms.

The prime minister makes sure the entire country is very aware of the impressive record his administration has racked up: the economy has grown by an average of 7.3 percent each year and inflation -- running at almost 57 percent in 2001 -- has now been ratcheted down to below 10 percent. The budget deficit is below 1 percent and the trade balance has surged to $223.8 billion. “A government that doubles the wealth of the country deserves to be reelected,” argues Erdogan advisor Cüneyd Zapsu.

According to opinion polls, it does indeed look likely that the AKP -- which has governed alone for the past four and a half years -- will again be the strongest force in parliament. The party’s strategists are even hoping for gains of up to 10 percentage points.

The AKP won a landslide victory in 2002.

The AKP won a landslide victory in 2002.

The AKP was only a year old when it won the election in 2002 in a landslide that swept more established parties from parliament. If it remains so strong after the poll three weeks from now, the party’s ongoing success could become a model for the rest of the Islamic world by proving that religion and Western democracy can in fact be successfully reconciled.

But there are a few details that make the prospects for Erdogan’s government look less bright. One of them is the fact that desire for reform has been visibly weaker in Ankara during the past year.

The failed attempt to get the religious Gül, whose wife wears a headscarf, made president has once again inflamed the dispute with the country’s secular forces. That has buoyed the otherwise weak opposition led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP). By throwing oil in the fire, the CHP hopes to remain the second strongest party in parliament. Onur Öymen, deputy leader of the CHP and former Turkish ambassador to Germany, claims the AKP’s main goal is to “create an Islamic republic.”


© DER SPIEGEL 27/2007
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