The Coronation of Erdogan

Turkey's ruling party is in line to win the election by a landslide on June 12. Can anyone stop them from changing the country's constitution?


ISTANBUL — Durdane Coskun is in a frantic rush. A housewife with three children who spends most of her time at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaign office in the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Beykoz, she organizes meetings, answers phone calls, distributes brochures and flags, and sometimes even cooks for more than 20 other volunteers. Her colleagues dash around the office, which is painted in a dull yellow and covered with large portraits of a smiling Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister, and a grainy picture of Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, praying with his deputies, hands open, palms facing skyward.

"My waking hours are dedicated to this cause," Coskun says. "I take care of the household chores after midnight." Then, with a big smile on a face neatly framed with a colorful, silk headscarf, she says, "It’s for the love of our prime minister, our country. It’s for the future of our people."

With less than two days left before Turks go to the ballot box in parliamentary elections on Sunday, June 12, the AKP is riding high in the polls. With thousands of volunteers like Coskun working around the clock, there is little doubt that the party will win a landslide victory for the third time.

It’s still an open question, though, just what the AKP’s agenda will be. Erdogan, who has won the admiration of many in the past eight years for bringing political and economic stability to a formerly crisis-prone country, has long promised an inclusive, pluralistic constitution — if he wins a third term. "After the 2011 elections, we will definitely make a new constitution," he told Taraf newspaper in August 2010. Turkey’s current constitution is a relic of a bygone military era, a straitjacket designed by the country’s adamantly secular generals in the aftermath of the 1980 coup to curb civil liberties. But many fear that this new constitution may entrench the AKP’s power and weaken the opposition, including the country’s large and unhappy Kurdish minority.

Indeed, Erdogan’s fiery campaign rhetoric has polarized the country. His frequent references to the opposition leader’s minority religious identity (Kemal Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi Muslim) were interpreted as derogatory. Recently, he said he would have "hanged" Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of the outlawed Kurdish separatist group, putting more strain on the already tense situation with the Kurds, many of whom have been beaten or tear-gassed at anti-Erdogan rallies in the past weeks. But in the absence of a robust opposition — and with the military’s influence in politics significantly reduced from its heyday — Erdogan’s power is mostly unrivaled.

The margin of the AKP’s victory, which is the only unknown about Sunday’s vote, will play a critical role in determining Erdogan’s leadership style and the country’s post-election atmosphere. According to Konda, a private survey company, the party seems to have secured 46.5 percent of the votes, which translates to 328 to 332 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party known as the CHP, is poised to get 26 percent of the votes and thus secure 145 to 155 seats; the MHP, a far-right nationalist party struggling to cross the 10 percent threshold required to enter the parliament, is polling at 10.8 percent.

Konda’s manager, Bekir Agirdir, explains that if the AKP gets 367 seats in the parliament — admittedly unlikely, according to the latest polling — it will reach the two-thirds "supermajority" it needs to rewrite the constitution, without the cooperation of other parties or having to call for a referendum. That would raise suspicions about how inclusive the new charter would be.

If the AKP wins 330 seats, however, it would not be able to act on its own. In such a scenario, the AKP would have to call for a referendum on the proposed constitutional changes. Anything below 330 would force the party to reach consensus with the opposition to be able to pass any major legislation.

The process of rewriting the Turkish Constitution is closely tied to the Kurdish question, which has long tainted the country’s democratic record. Last year, Erdogan initiated the "Kurdish Opening," a much-debated move to start dialogue about Kurdish demands for cultural rights. The prime minister’s courageous steps were met with applause, yet an unforeseeable event complicated his calculations. Encouraged by the changing dynamics, some militants associated with the PKK — a separatist Kurdish group — returned to Turkey. Hundreds of Kurds gathered in southeastern cities, singing Kurdish songs and waving the outlawed organization’s yellow-green-red flags, to welcome the militants. The event prompted an outcry among Erdogan’s opponents, who immediately accused the prime minister of embracing terrorists. Realizing that the political cost of breaking the decades-long deadlock on the Kurdish issue would be too high, Erdogan changed course, abandoning his promises to initiate dialogue.

Erdogan’s break with the Kurds has decisively changed this election campaign. Mesut Yegen, a sociology professor at Istanbul Sehir University who focuses on the Kurdish issue, suggests that to make up for the lost Kurdish votes in the southeast, the prime minister has been targeting MHP votes by adopting a more nationalistic tone. Journalist Cengiz Candar counts on the possibility of Erdogan returning to his signature "pragmatism" after the vote and perhaps easing his rhetoric on the Kurds. Winning them back, however, will be much harder.

Fed up with the stalemate, Kurdish politicians have changed their tune, too: Their calls for autonomy are only increasing in volume. According to Yegen, Erdogan has irreparably lost touch with the Kurds. "AKP candidates running in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern towns are mostly accomplished bureaucrats or businesspeople," he says. "This implies that Erdogan thinks the Kurdish issue is ultimately an economic problem, whereas for Kurds it’s about who they are."

There are other signs of a profound political transformation in the country. Under its new leader, Kilicdaroglu, the CHP is rebranding itself. The party has long harbored sympathies for the adamantly secular army, which for years fought against the separatist PKK militants in Turkey’s rugged southeast. Now, the CHP is presenting itself as a liberal party that is eager to talk to others, including the Kurds. Sezgin Tanrikulu, the party’s Kurdish vice president, says the party is "reaching out to those on the periphery." Tanrikulu’s presence on the CHP ticket is widely interpreted as a strong sign of change within the opposition.

Disappointed by Erdogan’s unkept promises, Kurdish deputies seem likely to push harder for recognition of the Kurdish minority after the elections. Inspired by the Arab Spring, some Kurds are discussing resorting to acts of civil disobedience. This may include "not singing the Turkish anthem at schools" or "refusing to serve in the Turkish army," Yegen says.

What’s clear is that Sunday’s election will be the beginning, not the end, of determining Erdogan’s ultimate legacy in Turkey. Demonstrating his ability to unite a deeply divided society under the umbrella of a new, inclusive constitution would secure a place in the history books for the prime minister. The question is whether he has the ability, and the will, to pull it off.

Afsin Yurdakul is a journalist, news anchor, and fellow with the Nieman Foundation.

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