The Middle East Channel
Misplaced fears about the upcoming Turkish election
Leading Western publications, such as the Economist and the New York Times, have been recently editorializing in a sensational vein that the return to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an enhanced majority could be the beginning of the end of the Turkish democratic experiment. The Economist has gone to the extent ...
Leading Western publications, such as the Economist and the New York Times, have been recently editorializing in a sensational vein that the return to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an enhanced majority could be the beginning of the end of the Turkish democratic experiment. The Economist has gone to the extent of endorsing the CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party and the standard-bearer of Kemalism with its mix of authoritarianism and militant secularism, as if it were endorsing a candidate in the mayoral elections in London. The New York Times has editorialized that it would be better for Turkey if the voters did not give the AKP what it calls a "supermajority" as it would erode the basis of Turkish democracy.
These apprehensions regarding an AKP victory in the June 12 Turkish elections have their roots in two sources. On the one hand, they are the products of overblown concerns about the future of democracy in a country undergoing democratic consolidation, which is hardly ever a unilinear and smooth process. A second cause for such apprehensions, which undergirds the first, is related to the Islamist pedigree of the AKP — though the party has moved quite a distance away from its roots and repackaged itself as a conservative democratic formation akin in spirit to the Christian Democrats of Europe. Nonetheless, the fact that many of its leaders belonged to the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party at one time and that it continues to draw support from some of the same elements that supported Refah conjures up images of a staunchly Muslim Turkey under the AKP that will be reflexively anti-Western.
It is this fear that leads to pejorative references, such as "neo-Ottomanism," used by Western journalists and even some academics not only to describe but also to disparage the recent activism in Turkey’s regional policies — especially toward the Arab world. Discerning observers of the Turkish scene, however, reject charges of neo-Ottomanism as hyperbolic. They realize that Turkish policymakers are not naive enough to try to impose a pax-Turkiana on the Middle East. What Turkey is attempting to do is to carve out a niche for itself in the greater Middle East that is commensurate with its size and capabilities, which are superior to those of most other states in the region. Interestingly, both these concerns regarding the AKP’s anti-democratic proclivities and Turkish activism in the Middle East, which has sometimes — as over the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli blockade of Gaza — put it at odds with American policy, have been expressed in increasingly shrill tones by Western analysts and journalists since 2009 after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out on Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, when the latter tried to defend Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. This may have been a coincidence, but many people especially in Turkey think otherwise.
In any case, Western apprehensions about Erdogan’s authoritarian personality traits and the new trajectory in Turkish foreign policy have been heightened by prospects of an imminent AKP victory in the June 12 elections. While there is near-universal agreement that the AKP will be returned to power on the basis of its economic and political record as well as Erdogan’s personal popularity, there is a sense of contrived dread in some quarters that if it manages to get 367 or even 330 of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly, it will be able to rewrite the country’s constitution — through a vote in parliament if it reaches the first figure and through a popular referendum if it reaches the second. According to the AKP’s critics, such a unilateral move will erode Turkey’s democratic system by riding roughshod over opposition opinion and by providing Erdogan the opportunity to turn the parliamentary system into a presidential one.
Both these concerns are unjustified. The Erdogan government already pushed through several amendments to the Constitution in September 2010 through the medium of a popular referendum that, in the words of the Economist, were aimed at "rais[ing] democratic standards and further erod[ing] the powers of the country’s once omnipotent generals." These amendments, which were aimed at bringing the Constitution into compliance with European Union standards, included reform of the Constitutional Court in order to make it more broad-based and representative in character. Other amendments included removing the immunity provided to leaders of military coups, thus acting as a deterrent against future coup attempts. The changes were supported by 58 percent of the voters, 11 percentage points more than the number that had voted the AKP back to power in 2007. None of these amendments ought to strike one as concentrating power in the hands of the prime minister or his cabinet.
One should not forget that the current Turkish Constitution was imposed on the country in 1982 by a military-dominated regime and, therefore, suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Its primary purpose was to maintain the privileged position of the military establishment as guardians of the Turkish political order and provide the Kemalist elite — bureaucratic, military, and judicial — the legal instruments to outlaw popular challenges, whether they emerged from liberal democrats, religiously observant Muslims, or underprivileged ethnic minorities. There is nothing undemocratic about amending or rewriting such a constitution if there is a popular mandate to do so through fair and free elections and a mechanism that includes provisions for a popular referendum, if the proposed amendments receive 60 percent of the votes in parliament but fall short of achieving the support of two-thirds of its members.
The AKP had moved very gingerly until 2010 on issues relating to constitutional change, fearing a military coup if it moved too fast. That these fears were not baseless is proved by the fact that as late as 2007 there was an attempt by a part of the military establishment to derail Turkey’s democratic experiment by making veiled threats that the army might intervene if then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul were elected to the presidency. Fortunately, times have changed and the process of democratic consolidation in Turkey has advanced to a stage where major changes to the current constitution can be seriously contemplated. A convincing electoral victory will provide the AKP with the credibility and the legitimacy to bring about long overdue changes and help force the military into the barracks where it belongs.
Recent statements by Erdogan indicate that he is personally in favor of a presidential system for Turkey because, according to him, it would strengthen the separation of powers in the Turkish system, thereby making it more democratic and preventing an all-powerful prime minister from acting arbitrarily. His critics contend that this argument is a ruse as he is preparing to ascend to the presidency after his next term as prime minister expires in 2015. Be that as it may, there is nothing inherently wrong and anti-democratic in a politician floating the idea of a presidential system in a democracy. Moreover, there are divisions on this issue within the AKP itself with President Abdullah Gul expressing "reservations" about the idea and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, the third member of the AKP triumvirate, openly expressing support for the parliamentary system. Therefore, it is not a foregone conclusion that if the AKP is returned with a substantial majority it will attempt to change the parliamentary system into a presidential one — or that this would pass in a popular referendum even if the party decided to introduce such a change.
Finally, as long as elections are free and fair there is nothing anti-democratic about a party winning a substantial majority in parliament in a multiparty system even if it does not receive an absolute majority of the popular vote. If Turkey’s history is any guide, single-party rule based on a parliamentary majority has provided the country with unprecedented stability, growth, and individual freedom since 2002 — compared with the era of fragile coalitions in the 1990s when the military establishment could dictate terms to elected governments unsure of their longevity. Stable governments that are at the same time legitimate and have impeccable democratic credentials are in fact essential during the early phase of democratic consolidation.
India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the first two decades of its independence proved this point admirably. The Congress Party won approximately three-quarters of the seats in Parliament during the first three elections of 1952, 1957, and 1962, though its popular vote ranged between 44 and 48 percent — very much akin to what the AKP achieved in 2007 and is expected to reach in this month’s election. Strong single-party governments that can stand up to extraconstitutional bullying are even more essential in countries like Turkey with a history of overt and covert military intervention.
An absolute prerequisite for the success of democratic governance in emerging democracies is finding a balance between popular support and a stable government. India went down this road successfully in the 1950s and 1960s thanks in part to the disjuncture between seats won by the Congress Party and the popular support for it. Turkey is doing so now. Statements about threats to Turkish democracy if the AKP returns to power with a substantial majority on the basis of less than half of the popular vote are, therefore, highly misplaced. However, if the Indian experience is any guide, this may be the last election in which the AKP is likely to be returned with a substantial majority. The process of the Congress Party’s decline began with the fourth Indian elections in 1967, and though the party continues to be a major player in the political game it no longer dominates the Indian political scene the way it did in the 1950s and the 1960s.
There may be a lesson in this for the AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan as well. Alternation in power is vital for democratic governance once the process of democratic consolidation has been completed and the threat from extraconstitutional centers of power has been eliminated. Turkey is a few years away from achieving this goal. In the meantime, the AKP is the best bet for the success of democracy in Turkey.
Mohammed Ayoob is university distinguished professor of international relations at Michigan State University and an adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.