On the upcoming Turkish elections

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Don't vote for the best government in 66 years."

This is how Taraf newspaper sarcastically sums up the logic of recent editorial in the Economist on the upcoming Turkish elections.

Actually, Taraf's headline is (predictably) misleading, since the Economist piece (which can be compared to a similar editorial in the New York Times) doesn't call the AKP government the best in 66 years. But the piece does praise Erdogan and his government:
Most Turks are understandably grateful to the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, and especially to their prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured). Since AK first came into single-party government in November 2002, the economy has done exceptionally well. Turkey has reformed itself enough to secure the opening of membership negotiations with the European Union. It has pursued a more vigorous foreign policy in its neighbourhood. And a politically intrusive army has been firmly returned to its barracks.
Despite these kind words, the Economist says that people in Turkey shouldn't vote for the AKP. Why?
The real worry about the AK party’s untrammelled rule concerns democracy, not religion. Ever since Mr Erdogan won his battles with the army and the judiciary, he has faced few checks or balances. That has freed him to indulge his natural intolerance of criticism and fed his autocratic instincts. Corruption seems to be on the rise. Press freedom is under attack: more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in China. And a worrying number of Mr Erdogan’s critics and enemies, including a hatful of former army officers, are under investigation, in some cases on overblown conspiracy charges.
It's kind of strange. For years, the New York Times  and the Turkey-related blogosphere couldn't say enough nice things about Erdogan and the AKP. The Ergenekon narrative--i.e., the idea that a single "gang" was responsible for both the Susurluk-style "deep-state" crimes of the 1990s and an alleged anti-AKP plot--was passed uncritically on by English-language columnists in Today's Zaman, and then further disseminated by the big media and most of the foreign bloggers covering Turkey.
Suddenly, however, it seems like everyone has collectively decided that Erdogan is an autocrat. This started happening in March of this year--see, for example, here, here, and here. It was around this time, meanwhile, that Andrew Finkel lost his job at Today's Zaman after offending the cemaat by finally attempting to publish something critical about the AKP-allied Gulen group that runs that paper.

Okay, fine. But it seems odd that everybody would change their mind about the AKP, and Ergenekon, all at the same time.

Perhaps it's an example of the same sort of media Groupthink that defined American media approaches to the run-up to the Iraq War. First, everybody bought the story, but then couldn't jump ship fast enough once enough others started calling it into question--but only after it was too late.

Or perhaps it's because--with the AKP determined to change the constitution this year--people have begun to realize that Turkey may be transitioning from a system in which the military played an outsized role in politics to one in which a single party dominates the political system.

For a discussion of the constitution, check out the other piece that appeared last week in the Economist:

What makes the election so critical is Mr Erdogan’s ambitions to rewrite the Turkish constitution. Although it has been amended a few times, the constitution is still essentially the 1982 text that was drafted by the army after a military coup in 1980. And as Soli Ozel, an academic and commentator in Istanbul, puts it, “this election is not about who is going to win. It is about getting a big enough majority to change the constitution. 

There are 550 seats at stake in Turkey’s single-chamber grand national assembly. If the current polls are right, AK is likely to win at least half of these (it now holds 61% of the total), enabling Mr Erdogan to form the party’s third consecutive single-party government after those in 2002 and 2007. But he is much less sure of surmounting the two higher thresholds for pushing through constitutional change.

The first of these is 330 seats, the number needed to make amendments that then have to be ratified in a popular vote—a procedure used by the AK government last September, when it won a referendum to approve changes bringing the army and the judiciary under greater democratic control. The second is 367 seats, which is how many are needed to change the constitution unilaterally, without any need for approval in a referendum..”

The current constitution was created by a military government in 1982, then accepted in a referendum by a population eager to get back to civilian rule (and therefore willing to accept just about any constitution that was offered them). The idea of civilian rule is popular in Turkey, and there are few people willing to defend the existing constitution.

 As I discussed last September, the specter of military rule and the continuing role that the military plays in Turkish politics played a big part in the 'Yes' side for last year's referendum, which allowed the AKP to expand the constitutional court in a manner not unlike FDR's 'court-packing' scheme from the New Deal days.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan likes to describe himself as the voice of 'civilian rule,' and after this month's elections the process of changing the constitution will begin. Actually, the groundwork for this has already been laid, with last year's referendum on expanding the constitutional court

The 'civilizanization' of Turkey lies at the heart of the AKP's constitutional salesmanship. Having spent the last few years creating the Ergenekon narrative, Erdogan now argues that the political opposition is "walking together with Ergenekon,"--a charge that the political opposition is in fact disloyal to democracy, working with the military and the "Ergenekon gang" to destabilize Turkey by plotting against the AKP.

The goal here is to further associate the political opposition, and especially the CHP, with the military and coup-plotting, and present the AKP as the strongest voice for civilian rule in the country.

My sense is that the future constitution will look very similar to whatever the AKP and Erdogan want it to look like. Moreover, it's hard to imagine a constitution emerging in Turkey that is worse than the one they have now. My hope is that Erdogan--an individual with considerable talent who is capable of making important contributions to Turkey and the regions Turkey finds itself in--will be reined in enough to create a constitution that not only limits the power of the military, but which also limits the power of whichever party is in power at a given time.

I'm not holding my breath, but I frankly think there's nothing to do but hope at this point, because the votes likely won't be there for the opposition.

At the very least, it seems that Erdogan and the AKP won't be getting a free pass from the Turkey-covering media and blogosphere anymore. Better late than never, I suppose, but it's nevertheless come very late indeed.