Constitutional stakes in Turkey's election
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
June 10th, 2011
03:05 PM ET

Constitutional stakes in Turkey's election

Editor's Note: Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates. This is his Expert Brief. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square (Oxford University Press, Fall 2011).

By Steven A. Cook, Special to CNN

Turks are in the final stage of a national election campaign, and the outcome on Sunday June 12 does not seem in doubt. Polls over the last six months show that for all the enthusiasm over the new leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains overwhelmingly popular.

If AKP prevails as expected and wins another majority in the Grand National Assembly, Justice and Development will have dominated Turkish politics longer than any other party since the multi-party era began in 1946.

This is a stunning irony for a party with Islamist patrimony in an officially laik–generally translated as secular–system, but AKP's success is indicative of how much Turkey has changed over the course of the party's tenure in power.

Turkey is now an economic powerhouse, an influential player on the global stage, and importantly, transitioning from semi-authoritarian politics to a new political order. Precisely what Turkey's political trajectory looks like depends on how Erdogan and his advisors use their renewed mandate.

Across Turkey's political spectrum there is general agreement that the country needs a new constitution. The present document, written at the behest of the military junta in 1982, restricts important political and personal freedoms, compromising the quality of Turkey's democratic practices and procedures. Despite important constitutional reforms that AKP oversaw in 2003 and 2004–which included limiting the military's ability to influence politics, giving relatively greater cultural leeway for the Kurdish minority, making it more difficult to shutter political parties, and paving the way for changes to the penal code–Turkish society has outgrown the current constitution.

Indeed, Turkey is far more complex, socially varied, economically successful, and connected to the world than it was when the military stepped in to restore order in September 1980 after almost a decade of right-left violence and instability. Thirty years to date after that coup, the desire for change was clear in the September 2010 referendum over amendments to twenty-six articles of the constitution that passed with 58 percent of the vote, despite concerns among both Turkish and Western observers that the AKP could use some of the proposed changes for such anti-democratic ends, as court packing.

There was an aborted effort to write a new constitution in the fall of 2007, after AKP's last electoral victory in which the party scored 47 percent of the vote. That effort ran into both technical problems–AKP did not have the supermajority in the Grand National Assembly (367 seats) needed to rewrite the constitution without requiring a referendum–and opposition to the party's desire to enshrine in the constitution the freedom for women to don the headscarf wherever they pleased, a central issue in Turkey's long-running culture war between secularists and Islamists.

President Obama can capitalize on the reportedly good working relationship he has established with Prime Minister Erdogan to quietly encourage AKP to pursue a new constitution in a manner that is inclusive, transparent, and addresses the concerns of all Turks.

Erdogan is banking on a different outcome this election cycle, which would give the party the supermajority it needs to proceed without having to bring a new constitution to the public. This is the crux of the opposition's concern about a new constitution. Will the AKP approach the issue with the pragmatism it demonstrated in 2003-2007, when it pushed through seven constitutional reform packages, managed relations with the General Staff well, and led a broad coalition of liberals, pious Muslims, Kurds, and big business? Or will Erdogan infer from his mandate that he can preside over the constitutional drafting process with the same kind of thinly veiled disdain with which he has approached his political opponents, certain elements of the press, and some business leaders since 2007?

Although the party remains popular, many Turks would welcome a return to AKP's first-term style, giving them confidence that Erdogan and his advisors can be stewards of a process that will ultimately result in a liberal democratic Turkey. Unfortunately, large numbers of Turks seem wary of Erdogan's ability to lead a process that is likely to be highly contentious, requiring the kind of compromise and consensus-that have been in short supply over the last four years.

The United States supports the changes that AKP has brought to Turkey over the last nine years and would look positively on the consolidation of Turkish democracy under a new, liberal constitution. With a dismally low public approval rating among the vast majority of Turks (only 10 percent viewed the United States favorably in a recent poll), publicly encouraging Turkey's transition to a more democratic political system is not likely to be received well in Ankara. Still, President Obama can capitalize on the reportedly good working relationship he has established with Prime Minister Erdogan to quietly encourage AKP to pursue a new constitution in a manner that is inclusive, transparent, and addresses the concerns of all Turks.

Should Erdogan and the AKP heed this advice, they will seal what they have long claimed to be their ultimate goal - forging a liberal political order in which personal and political freedoms are fully realized. If they do not, AKP will go down as a party that oversaw an extraordinary economic expansion and a novel foreign policy, but on domestic political issues was ultimately more populist than transformative, leaving Turkey short of its goal of becoming a fully democratic polity.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Steven Cook. Visit his blog on CFR.org for more.

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Topics: Turkey

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Politicians change their mind and sail with the wind, as it suits them. Erdogan seems to enjoy media attention and seeks popularity. Just 6 weeks before the election he urged his former benefactor Gaddafi to step down. Two weeks ago he condemned his former protegé Bashar al Assad for the escalation of the crisis in Syria. A year ago he became a national hero as he broke diplomatic tie with Israel for the raid of the Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza. His denial of the Armenian genocide came as no surprise. Ten years ago Turkey wanted to join the EU. With the economic growth and its increasing self-assertivenes Turkey is setting sail onto the Red Sea rather than the Mediterannean.

    June 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    No matter how these elections come out in Turkey, nobody will grant the Kurds the independence they deserve. It would be great if the Kurds got a chance to set up their own home state just like the Israelis did back in 1948.

    June 10, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
  3. Uhh. OK.

    Thanksgiving in Turkey. Do they eat turkey? I tryed to //_ //_ jogging not long after Thanksgiving dinner. I didn't get to far.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • MrSnuggles

      What's wrong with CNN? Why do they let jerks like these post such meaningless comments like the one above? In fact, they're not even funny if they're supposed to be in the first place!

      June 13, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  4. JusticeForAll

    One of the wisest men of the middle east just said " In ten years Turkey will be like Iran and Iran will be like Turkey".
    In other words the current Islamic party in Turkey is systematically eroding Democracy and turning Turkey to a theacracy. In Iran the experience of theocracy is eroding much of the support of theocracy.

    June 11, 2011 at 1:52 am | Reply
  5. Ahmed Johnson

    The Turk, the Ottoman...Islamic pigs and dogs...Turkey: the snake in the grass. Unworthy of Europe! Unworthy of heavan! May the horsemen of the second coming swing a sythe deeply through your dirty crop! Here oh Turkey, hear the opinion of the true and most high god of the Christian and Asian West: The women of Turkey are dirty.

    June 12, 2011 at 2:30 am | Reply
  6. Hase

    Islamists who put up a reasonable facade are more dangerous than suicide terrorists. Judge Erdogan not on the basis of his smile but on the basis of his handling of Kurds, christian minorities, free press, and women in society including universities. You will see very bad things happening at those fronts. So I agree: "In ten years Turkey will be like Iran and Iran will be like Turkey". The outcome of this election is bad news.

    June 13, 2011 at 2:25 am | Reply
  7. SarahPalin

    I love Turkey. The white meat not the dark meat. I really like Turkey on Thanksgiving Day. The day Paul Revere rode through New York saying "The Indians are coming for your Turkey". Paul was such a hero. When I'm elected president, I will make sure there's only White Meat (if you know what I mean) in the White House.

    June 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Reply

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