Turkey Goes to the Polls A New Election Comes with Old Problems

Sunday's elections in Turkey are a high-stakes game for the country. Erdogan's AKP is leading in polls, but the question of whether the party will gain enough votes to push through its presidential candidate remains an open one.

By in Istanbul


Turkish supporters of the Republican People's Party (CHP) wave flags during a pre-election rally.
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Turkish supporters of the Republican People's Party (CHP) wave flags during a pre-election rally.

Turkish commentators can't quite figure out what to make of the current election. It's lacking the charge and passionate debates one usually finds on every street corner come election time.

Is it the sticky summer heat, which often sees candidates campaigning against each other in soaking wet shirts? Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, the failed presidential candidate from the governing AKP party, is feeling particularly uncomfortable: he's been complaining in interviews about his painful swollen feet. For weeks, he's been traveling across the country, which is twice as big as Germany, alongside Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he attempts to save his Justice and Development Party's majority in parliament.

Or perhaps the lack of interest is being caused by the fact that the election result is more or less a foregone conclusion. Most polls predict an AKP victory -- with clear gains over the last election in 2002, when the moderate Islamic party came into power with 34.4 percent of the vote. An editorialist at the newspaper Zaman compared it to a football World Cup in which the champion is a massive favorite to win -- it's a bit of a sleeper.

But is the outcome really that clear? The truth is that the AKP could reach a higher percentage of votes on Sunday than in the last election, but it may actually end up with fewer seats. In 2002, only two parties cleared the 10 percent hurdle for seats in parliament, which ensured an almost two-thirds majority for the AKP. However, pollsters say that the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) could also clear the hurdle on Sunday, taking important seats away from AKP. In a dramatic gesture, Erdogan has threatened to quit politics if his AKP fails to win an absolute majority.

High Stakes

Erdogan isn't the only politician with a lot at stake. The election will also show whether Turkey is able to resolve the political crisis sparked by May's failed presidential election.

After almost five years of AKP power, the Turks will now vote on whether the party of former Islamists who have prescribed conservative and business-friendly policies for the country is able to establish itself as the dominant force in Turkish politics. It would also represent the political recognition of a rapid societal transformation that has seen the traditional, religious classes from Anatolya rise to form a new political elite that can compete for influence with the old secular ruling establishment.

During the campaign, the secularist social democratic opposition party CHP has sought to stoke fears of what it alleges is AKP's Islamic agenda. The CHP's performance on Sunday will show how deep the concern in Turkish secular circles really is, and also whether voters trust them to maintain Turkey's current economic growth.

Two years after the start of accession talks, one of the main issues for voters is the country's future path to European Union membership. The relationship between Turkey and the EU has slid into a crisis, partly because of a lack of will to make progress on the European side but also because the desire to carry out reforms has also been flagging noticeably in Turkey of late.

Brussels is hoping for new political momentum from the government after the elections. To that end, European politicians have forged close links with the AKP, which, despite its roots in the Islamist movement, has done more to push Turkey closer to Europe than any of the ultra-secular governments which preceded it.

Sunday's election will serve to set the country's future course. "This election will determine whether Turkey wants to continue on its liberal path -- opening itself up further and intensifying its relationship to Europe and the West -- or whether it will become more nationalistic and introverted," says Sinan Ülgen, a former diplomat who is now a political and economic consultant.

The latter could happen if the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the MHP gather enough votes to form a coalition government. The MHP's right-wing populists are hardly reserved in their nationalist zeal and view Europe at best skeptically or even as an outright enemy. MHP leaders have said that in the event of an election victory, their first step would be to reintroduce the death penalty and to invade northern Iraq to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) there.

But strong secular liberals like Ülgen face a dilemma. They value the AKP's policies on reform and democratization, and they are impressed by the stability and economic growth that Erdogan's party has brought to Turkey. But they still can't bring themselves to vote for the party, which has its roots in religion.

Many intellectuals and liberals -- including disappointed members of the allegedly social democratic CHP -- are throwing their support in this election behind the numerous independent candidates. Among the most prominent is political science professor Baskin Oran, who was brought to trial under the country's notorious Paragraph 301 -- which makes "maligning the Turkish state" a crime -- for writing a critical report about the situation of Turkish minorities.

Shrill Gestures on the Campaign Trail

For an election as important as this one -- which could determine no less than the country's future -- the lead-up has been remarkably mundane. Crucial issues like the conflict between the secularists and those who want a greater role for religion, the debate over the headscarf, the blockade politics of the opposition, poverty and a massive socio-economic divide, and the plight of farmers have all been remarkably under-addressed in the campaign.

But it’s the shrill gestures which are making the headlines. For example, opposition leader Deniz Baykal (CHP) can’t think of anything better to do than to criticize Erdogan for his expensive watch, which supposedly cost $60,000. The far-right nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli throws a rope into howling crowds at campaign rallies, while calling for Erdogan to hang Abdullah Öcalan, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdish group the PKK.

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