A Brave New World in Turkish Politics

By
Soli Ozel

November 15, 2002 -- There are moments in life when a development that one does not find particularly desirable may generate a great sense of relief and even elation. Once a struggle is over, the side effects of its outcome may be seen and appreciated as the harbinger of a new and hopefully auspicious beginning.

For many Turks who have feared a two-party parliament because this might lead to problems concerning representation or might give the winning party an overwhelming majority, the vote count for the November 3 elections in Turkey may have generated exactly this kind of feeling. Once it was known that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would have an absolute majority, it was far more important even for those who may not have voted for its candidates that the clean-up of the political stage be as thorough as possible.

Thus, there was relief when Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP) failed to pass the 10 percent threshold necessary for the party to have representatives in parliament. There may have been some poetic justice in this since she steadfastly refused to support lowering the threshold prior to the elections.

The entire political class that bore so much of the responsibility for the mess Turkey found itself in and for the country's wasting an entire decade was finally sent to where it properly belonged: oblivion. Next to this, the fact that 47 percent of the voters did not get representation in parliament seems to have become, for now, a secondary issue.

The elections were indeed momentous. They should and will be analyzed for a long time to come from many perspectives. Who exactly voted for AKP and why? Were these elections about secularism? Why did the Republican People's Party (CHP), the only other party besides AKP to be represented in parliament, fail to garner more support despite the presence in the party of Kemal Dervis, the architect of Turkey's successful, up until now, but socially costly economic stabilization program? What does the limited support for the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) mean? What can one make of the robust showing of the Young Party (GP) of media magnate Cem Uzan, who campaigned on an unabashedly populist and xenophobic platform?

Do the results just point to an irrational, if justified, burst of anger against established parties by an electorate that is fed up with corruption, incompetence, poverty, and inequality, or is there something more to AKP's stunning victory? Will the parties of the center right recover, or will AKP manage to become the new conservative party of the center?

These elections were not about Turkey's secular system. The fact that AKP, which won one-third of the vote and gained two-thirds of the seats in parliament, comes from a long lineage of Islamist parties does not alter this reality. In fact, the other inheritor of that tradition, the Felicity Party (SP), which was more openly Islamic and brought the patriarch of the movement, Necmettin Erbakan, out on the campaign trail, received only 2.3 percent of the votes. This was certainly a development that many Turks greeted with a sigh of "good riddance." Consequently, it might be better to interpret the results of the elections in the context of the last decade, particularly the last three and a half years when the current lame-duck coalition government held the reigns of power.

In analyzing the last three and a half years and their impact on the elections, many observers have correctly identified the economic crisis and its enormous social costs as the reason for the near evaporation of support for the three coalition partners, the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and the Motherland Party (ANAP). The trauma of the earthquakes of 1999 -- punctuated by the disastrous performance of the Turkish government, by the fact that many victims are still without proper lodging, and by the stories of corruption and misappropriation -- should not be underestimated in explaining the deluge of votes for AKP, either.

As reported by Morgan Stanley's Serhan Cevik, the electorate that went to the polls on November 3 had seen its income decline by 27.2 percent to $2,165 annually, compared with the beginning of the 1990s. Fifty-five percent of the voters have a monthly income of less than $180, and 25 percent of them bring home only $100 every month. Since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2001, the unemployment rate has increased by 41.5 percent and has reached the stunning level of 13.9 percent for the urban workforce. Among the educated youth in urban areas, the rate is 29.1 percent, according to official statistics. Eighteen percent of the population lives below the poverty threshold and, while the richest 10 percent of the population receives 32.3 percent of the income, the poorest 10 percent gets merely 2.3 percent. Real wages took a dip of about 20.5 percent in 2001, and they continue to decline.

In short, Turkey entered these elections with a severely shaken, badly wounded middle class, which is supposed to be the backbone of center parties all over the world. Unemployment surged to the top of the list as the most important problem for voters, for the first time since opinion polls began to be taken. Peasants, particularly those who produce crops that receive price support from the government, saw the steady decline in their incomes exacerbated by the intensity of the crisis and the economic reform program.

These developments, which led to the erosion of the social basis of center-right party support, were compounded by other factors. The corruption, cronyism, self-centeredness, incompetence, and duplicity of the right's leading parties led disgusted voters to desert them and seek refuge and new hope primarily in AKP. In turn, AKP recruited many important figures of the traditional center-right as candidates for the elections, and many of these figures made it into parliament. Still, 11 million voters, close to one-third of all those who went to the voting booths, indicated that their votes were cast with the intention of "trying out a new party," according to pollster Tarhan Erdem. Erdem suggests that 38 percent of AKP supporters and 57 percent of GP supporters were such voters.

Although AKP ran on a modernist, pro-EU platform and promised to remain within the bounds of the IMF-backed stabilization program, half of its voters have come from either its Islamist predecessor, the Virtue Party, or from the ultra-nationalist MHP. In other words, half of AKP's constituency is conservative, introverted, and possibly anti-globalization and anti-integration with the West. AKP's leadership and important groups within the remaining constituencies of the party favor a Turkey that is economically integrated into the world, one that is on its way to becoming a member of the European Union. These constituencies also favor a more efficient state and more effective state institutions, and they demand respect for everyone's lifestyle.

These elements suggest that AKP is poised to be the agent for a new political realignment in Turkey. The party's greatest challenge will be to balance conflicting demands that different constituencies will have. Calls for immediate satisfaction, which will come from its less-educated, hard-pressed constituencies in rural areas that are close to destitution and from the periphery of metropolitan centers, will push AKP in the direction of populism and, perhaps, rhetorical radicalism. Its modernist, centrist constituents will be pushing for a more rational economic program and a transformation of Turkey's archaic administrative, judicial, and social welfare systems.

The success of an AKP government will be determined by the skill of the party's leadership in managing these conflicts. Or, according to the formulation of Ziya Onis and Fuat Keyman, professors from Koc University in Istanbul, its success will be a function of AKP's ability to forge and implement a "communitarian-liberal synthesis," which would bring together, in a compatible mix, aspects of liberal market values and the solidarity of a communitarian world view. Whether or not existing power structures will allow AKP to move forward in this direction, whether or not the party will be able to dissipate the doubts about it that stem from its ideological lineage and keep calm under a torrent of provocation, and whether or not the party can contain its hard-core constituencies and supporters will all have a bearing on the future of the AKP government.

A final word may be needed on AKP's relations with the outside world. There is no reason to doubt that the party will follow Turkey's traditional foreign policy orientation and will be mainly pro-Western. Since it is as hard to find a citizen in Turkey who is in favor of military action against Iraq as it is to find a pearl in the Sahara Desert, the stance of AKP on Iraq should be seen as reflective of a societal consensus. Should a war against Iraq become inevitable, however, there is no reason to doubt that AKP will evaluate Turkey's policy as the country's interests and national security dictate. In fact, AKP's demand for a U.N. resolution before any military action is taken in Iraq is in line with the world consensus, as well.

Perhaps far more significantly, AKP's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went to great lengths to reassure both Turkish society and the outside world that his party would doggedly pursue Turkey's European vocation. Ironically, it may be far more difficult for the European Union to snub an AKP-led government at the December Copenhagen summit than a government with better secular credentials. Such a rejection would appear to have been made on religious/cultural grounds rather than on objective criteria. In the next five weeks, much imagination and political savvy will be required from all parties as the finale of the triangular relation between Cyprus, the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), and Turkey's EU accession negotiations unfolds.

Turkey is starting an important experiment. The consequences of the success or failure of this experiment will have a bearing well beyond the borders of the country in a post-September 11 environment, when discussions about a "clash of civilizations" or the nature of Islam, if not Muslims, abound. This is a challenge for the Turks and all their friends, allies, and enemies, and it suggests that exciting times are in the offing.

Just keep watching.

------------------------------------------------Professor Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University. He is also the editor of the Turkish edition of Foreign Policy and writes a column twice a week for the national Turkish daily Sabah.

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  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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