People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 28

July 10, 2011


 Turkey Elections: Erdogan’s Hat Trick


Yohannan Chemerapally


THE overwhelming victory of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in the June 12 elections was on expected lines. The AK Party this time got more than 50 per cent of the votes cast but this could only translate into 326 seats in parliament. This is short of the two-thirds majority needed to make major policy and constitutional changes that the AK Party had promised in its election manifesto. Now, the AK Party will need the help of the parties sitting in the opposition to fulfil the wide ranging promises made on the campaign trail. The AK Party would now be forced to cut deals with the Centre Left Republican Peoples Party (CHP), the main opposition grouping. The CHP got three million more votes this time. Its vote share rose from 21 per cent to 26 per cent.


CHP’s new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, managed to change the image of the party. Under the previous leader, the party was seen as a mouthpiece of the armed forces and the elite. Under the new leadership it has rebranded itself as a social democratic party. It was the only party which could increase its representation in parliament. The extreme right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) managed to poll above the 10 per cent cut off point needed to have a presence in parliament despite the sex scandals plaguing its top leadership. The AK Party was hoping that the MHP vote share would go below the 10 per cent threshold. If that wish had materialised, the AK Party would have been able to get its two-thirds majority in parliament, as most of the seats allotted to the MHP in the parliament would have ended up in its kitty.      




All the same, the outcome is a landmark event for Turkey. The AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes the first Turkish politician in the last fifty years to win three elections consecutively. Erdogan had become prime minister for the first time in 2003 after the newly formed AK Party had won a majority with only 34 per cent of the vote. During his first term he succeeded in reviving the country’s faltering economy and implemented a foreign policy that has now made Turkey a key player in regional politics. Turkey has now become a role model for the people in the region as they seek to overthrow authoritarian regimes.  


Erdogan’s third term has the potential to be an historic one if he manages to fulfil his promise of rewriting the 1982 Turkish constitution and find a lasting solution to the long running Kurdish problem. The current Turkish constitution was written after 1980 following a military coup and has an authoritarian imprint. Even the main opposition party, the staunchly secular Peoples Republican Party, has accepted that the 1980 constitution is outdated.


The Turkish state has expended a lot of its energy and resources in its dealings with the Kurdish problem. At the beginning of Erdogan’s second term in office, both sides seemed to be willing to settle their problems amicably, with the State recognising the Kurdish identity and the Kurds reciprocating by giving up their secessionist demands. But progress towards a comprehensive settlement has been stalled due to a variety of factors. Erdogan had taken the first steps to reach out to the sizeable Kurdish minority which had been alienated during the decades of authoritarian rule. It was the government led by Erdogan which took the initiative to officially recognise the Kurdish language and allow its use on television programs and radio shows. In the last elections, because of these policies, the AK Party had done quite well in the Kurdish dominated north eastern part of the country.


But this time around, the Kurdish nationalists opposed to the AK have swept the region. The Kurds were angry at the failure of the government to devolve power and release all political prisoners. The government has refused to lift the ban on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that has spearheaded their struggle. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is serving a life term in a high security prison. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) which won 35 crucial seats in parliament in the June elections, wants the government to allow the use of the Kurdish language in the administrative and educational institutions in the northeast of the country. The BDP has demanded the speedy release of political prisoners and an end to the military operations against the PKK. The Kurdish conflict so far has resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 civilians and polarised the nation. The PKK is threatening a resumption of hostilities unless the government starts talking formally with them at the earliest. Erdogan is unlikely to make many more concessions to the Kurds. He has said on several occasions that he considers the issue solved.


Erdogan meanwhile, continues to stride like a colossus on the Turkish political stage. He has won more votes in this election than he did four years ago. He had won around 47 per cent of the votes in 2007. His personal popularity at this juncture seems to be rivalling that of the legendary founder of modern day Turkey---Kemal Ataturk.  It was during his second term that Erdogan consolidated his hold on the state machinery, managing to sideline the hitherto powerful armed forces that had played a central role in the country’s politics for more than five decades. During his first term in office, the top leadership of the Turkish army in alliance with influential sections of the political establishment and the judiciary, known as the “deep state” had almost succeeded in overthrowing the AK government in a “soft coup”. Influential sections of the top army brass had accused the AK Party of trying to subvert the secular ideology of the state.




During his second term, aided by a booming economy, Erdogan eased into the role of a world statesman. For the first time, a Turkish leader, dared to take a stand that differed from that of Washington and the West. The Turkish prime minister had shown that he was capable of taking decisions that were unpalatable to the West during his first term in office itself, when he was on a slippery political footing. Soon after coming to power, he saw to it that the US forces were not allowed to invade neighbouring Iraq through the Turkish land borders. That move proved to be a very popular one among the electorate and paid rich dividends during the elections in 2007.


Under Erdogan, relations with Israel have witnessed dramatic changes. Turkey was the only Islamic nation with whom Israel had close political and strategic ties. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, followed by its barbaric attack on Gaza, had elicited strong negative reactions from Ankara. Joint military exercises were scaled down gradually. Bilateral ties hit rock bottom after nine Turkish civilians on a humanitarian mission to Gaza were killed in cold blood by Israeli commandos in international waters. Erdogan ordered his ambassador back and the strategic and military relationship between the two countries is in shambles. Erdogan’s actions boosted his popularity not only within Turkey but also in the Arab world. In his first major speech after the election results were announced, Erdogan emphasised that Turkey would continue to follow an activist foreign policy.


But all of a sudden, Turkey has been confronted by new foreign policy challenges. The “Arab Spring” has taken the Turkish government by surprise. To Erdogan’s credit, he was among the first leaders to call for the exit of Hosni Mubarak. In Libya and Syria, he faces a bigger predicament. Bilateral ties with Syria had become exceptionally strong after Erdogan came to power. In the late nineties the two countries had almost gone to war. Ankara had accused Damascus of aiding the PKK and giving refuge to Ocalan. Erdogan and the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad had struck up a warm rapport. Turkish companies had started investing heavily in Syria. Turkey had helped Syria merge out of the diplomatic cold, when it was under immense pressure from the West, following the invasion of Iraq. Turkish companies had also invested heavily in Libya. The turmoil in these two countries could have unforeseen consequences for Turkey. The Turkish economy which has been growing around 9 per cent annually for the last few years could be adversely impacted if the uncertainty in the region is prolonged. Currently, Turkey ranks 17th among the world’s top economies. Erdogan’s ambition is to bring Turkey into the ranks of the top ten economies. His party has modelled itself on the centre right European Parties. AK Party officials strongly resist being labelled as “soft Islamists”.


Erdogan had initially tried to mediate a truce in Libya but was rebuffed by his NATO allies led by the US. Turkish business has already suffered huge losses in Libya due to the NATO led war there. Turkey’s relations with Syria seem to have soured. Damascus has not taken kindly to Erdogan’s criticisms of its handling of the violent protests that have erupted. The recent exodus of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border has further soured the relationship. Turkey’s foreign policy under Erdogan was based on the principle ---“zero problems with neighbours”.  With Erdogan increasingly adopting a critical tone towards the leadership in Damascus, good neighbourly relations could be a casualty. Relations with Iran, another neighbour, could also suffer as a consequence. Iran remains one of Syria’s staunchest allies. Erdogan had also managed to build bridges with Armenia, but nationalists in both the countries have seen to it that the old wounds continue to fester. Many Armenians hold the Turks responsible for the Armenian holocaust of the early 20th century. Nationalist Turks deny that a holocaust ever occurred.