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Turkish Poll Could Result In All-Powerful 'President' Erdogan

  • Robert Tait

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters during an election rally in Diyarbakir on June 1.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters during an election rally in Diyarbakir on June 1.

Last time out, it was about the power of civilian politicians versus the might of the military. This time, it has been about sex -- at least superficially.

In a lackluster encounter, the sex scandals that have engulfed a small nationalist party have provided a rare racy focal point in Turkey's forthcoming parliamentary elections on June 12.

Ten senior members of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) were forced to resign in May following the publication of videos showing them engaged in activities not normally in the line of political duty. One was allegedly shown in flagrante with a 16-year-old girl.

Given the MHP's relatively minor role in Turkish politics -- it has 70 out of the parliament's 550 seats -- the incident appeared to hold no wider significance beyond its undeniable prurience.

In fact, it has the potential to transform the country's political landscape.

Polls indicate that the fallout from the scandal could reduce the MHP's vote from the 14 percent it won in the 2007 election. If it falls below the 10-percent threshold, it will mean the party gets no seats in parliament -- thus making it easier for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to secure the two-thirds majority it needs to write a new constitution.

The Chavez Model

Surveys show the AKP is heading for a third consecutive victory, though with considerably fewer votes than the 47 percent it won in 2007. Then, electors rallied to the party after the military attempted to block founder member Abdullah Gul's ascension to the presidency because of fears that his Islamist background would undermine Turkey's secular character.

However, if the MHP fails to pass the threshold needed to qualify for seats, the government could end up with a bigger majority even if it wins a lower share of the overall vote.

According to Soli Ozel, international relations professor at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, an overwhelming AKP majority could lead to Erdogan wielding power in a manner similar to President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

"We will be facing a more powerful Tayyip Erdogan and we will probably be facing a more authoritarian Turkey," Ozel says. "There is something in political science called electoral authoritarianism, or competitive authoritarianism, in which you have elections, you have institutions and stuff but power is terribly concentrated."

He adds: "I think the case that looks more like what is going to happen is the Venezuelan case. You have an opposition [and] you have elections but obviously Chavez is far too strong, he has too much monopoly of power in his hands and all that. That's where we will end, especially since the prime minister expressed his desire to go for a presidential system."

Constitutional Shakeup

Erdogan's campaign rhetoric has displayed a desire to capitalize on the MHP's discomfort by appealing to the nationalist sentiment that is normally its stock in trade.

Tacking to the populist right, he has rubbished the European Union (which Turkey officially wants to join) and backtracked on his government's attempts to address Kurdish aspirations by declaring that Turkey no longer has a "Kurdish problem." Some observers fear that attitude could soon lead to a resurgence of the violent conflict over Kurdish identity that has cost an estimated 40,000 lives since 1984.

Erdogan has also proposed building two earthquake-proof satellite cities to relieve overcrowding in Istanbul as well as what he called a "crazy project" for a new waterway as an alternative to the iconic Bosphorus, which divides the city in half but is now dangerously congested with shipping traffic. Both visions seem designed to bolster the cult of personality surrounding the charismatic prime minister.

The emergence of a "President" Erdogan would require a constitutional shakeup much more radical than that allowed for by a referendum last year. At that time, 58 percent of Turkish voters opted to support amendments that greatly reduced the powers of the once-mighty armed forces and paved the way for an overhaul of the judiciary, the military's traditional allies in upholding the established secular order.

Mensur Akgun, an adviser to the liberal Turkish think tank Tesev, says Erdogan envisages a much more powerful presidency than the largely ceremonial role currently fulfilled by Gul. Yet for all his power and influence, he says, the prime minister may find himself thwarted.

"Prime Minister Erdogan of course is preparing himself for the presidency. It's obvious from all the indicators, and he would like to have an amended constitution with lots of powers vested in the presidency and he would like [it] to run the country, not the prime minister," Akgun says. "I think he would like to have a sort of French model applied to Turkey as well. But I don't think he will be able to get it because even from his own party ranks, there is some opposition to the presidential system because it will require enormous reversal of the established norms and practices of the parliamentary system of the last almost 70 years."

'Sultan Erdogan'

Yet even without inheriting the presidency, Erdogan's critics charge him with ruling over the AKP like a dictator. In a recent purge, he rooted out more than 200 parliamentarians deemed insufficiently loyal and replaced them with hand-picked candidates for the upcoming elections.

Ozel says it represents a bad omen for Turkish democracy.

"In 2007 he had eliminated two-thirds of his parliamentarians and anyone who had an independent stance was eliminated, and now he has again eliminated about 220 of his parliamentarians and basically showed to everyone that he is the sultan of the party," Ozel says. "Your political life is between his two lips. He can take you from being nothing to making you somebody and then from being somebody you may return to being nobody and it's all up to him. That obviously doesn't bode well for democratic politics in a country."

Yet such criticism risks overlooking the fact that Erdogan -- and his party -- are genuinely popular among Turks lapping up the prosperity produced by a vibrant economy currently growing at around 9 percent. Many too have been seduced by the AKP's carefully honed message of wresting power from an unrepresentative elite and passing the benefits on to a rising, often religiously conservative, middle class.

Akgun says Erdogan's political machine retains popular resonance because of real political successes -- and the lack of a credible alternative.

"It's because of the success in the economy and because of the success in initiating new projects and because of success in the health care system for instance," Akgun says. "It's because of the democratization efforts and also a lot to do with the foreign policy as well. And because of the firm stand in various issues and the conciliatory attitudes. People like them. Moreover there was no formidable opposition."

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