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The AKP will win, but Turkey's fate depends on the margins

The AKP's dominance going into elections today does not guarantee stability for Turkey, which still has to resolve the Kurdish question, the role of a fairly weak opposition and the ambitions of the Prime Minister Erdogan.

As Turkish voters go to the polls today, there does not seem to be much mystery about the outcome: the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slated to win an overwhelming victory. The elections are noteworthy in part because this is the first time since the 1950s that a single political party will have won three successive contests. Moreover, the Turkish military's shadow no longer lurks over the results; the era of coups is over.

For four distinct reasons, these elections are likely to be landmark in the evolution of the Turkish political system.

First, Mr Erdogan has promised to overhaul the 1982 military-imposed authoritarian constitution. The ruling military junta had crafted a document that privileged the interests of the state at the expense of the individual and has proven to be a straitjacket preventing the development of Turkish democracy. Moreover, it remains the main impediment to the resolution of Turkey's most important problem: the so-called "Kurdish question". The size of AKP's victory will decide how and whether the reform process will proceed.

Second, by Mr Erdogan's own admission, these elections are his last parliamentary ones. It is no secret that he intends to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a French-style presidential one. He will then contest the next presidential elections. He has been the most dominant Turkish politician of his generation and he intends to remain so until 2023, the 100th anniversary of the formation of the modern Turkish republic.

Third, Turkey's hapless opposition has a chance to come out of its self-imposed irrelevance. The main opposition, the Republican People's Party, CHP, is showing signs of awakening as its new leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, despite many false starts and mistakes, has managed to inject a new sense of dynamism among its rank and file. The AKP has not had any real opposition since its assumption of power in 2002, and it shows. Although the CHP will not win these elections, it is important that the Turkish voter sees that there can be a change in leadership in the not so distant future. Otherwise, there is a danger that Turkey will turn into a one-party state.

Fourth, will the Kurdish national movement, as represented mostly by the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP, emerge as a mature movement ready to assume the responsibility of co-shepherding a resolution of this age-old problem? The good news is that Kurds in Turkey are no longer interested in a separate state. This is because the "Kurdish problem" in Turkey is no longer a regional one. Kurds live everywhere; Istanbul is the world's largest Kurdish city with as many as four million of its 12 million inhabitants of Kurdish descent. Kurds are intent on regaining elementary rights, be they political or cultural. Although they have been at this struggle for a considerable time, the Arab Spring has provided them with further inspiration.

Kurdish political parties have been harassed and persecuted by the state while also existing under the shadow of the insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK. There is a chance after these elections for them to win a degree of independence from the PKK and the state.

The BDP is running slates of independent candidates because of restrictive electoral rules requiring a party to win a minimum of 10 per cent of the national vote to earn parliamentary representation. But it is expected to do well because it has successfully galvanised its base by articulating a resolute set of demands for the next constitution. How the rest of Turkey reacts to a much-enhanced BDP and how it exercises its newfound legitimacy after the elections will very much determine the success of the constitutional reforms.

Many pitfalls still lie ahead. First, will the Nationalist Action Party, MHP, make it past the 10 per cent electoral threshold and get into parliament? The MHP is the anti-thesis of the Kurdish movement; it has no agenda other than opposing any concessions to the Kurds in the name of Turkish supremacy. However, its leader Devlet Bahçeli, though a bland politician with little vision, has succeeded in reining his party's violent hotheads. If the MHP is not represented in parliament then it will be much harder to contain its violent rank and file who are quite capable of provoking inter-ethnic clashes between Turks and Kurds.

The second pitfall is that while support for democratic reforms is widespread, it is not evident that the public will countenance a presidential system. In a polarised society, Mr Erdogan risks conflating the reforms designed to resolve the Kurdish question with the presidential system, thereby endangering the first. This could potentially have catastrophic consequences for Turkey's stability.

What do these elections mean for Turkey's foreign policy and regional role? The AKP has succeeded in exploiting Turkey's strategic location and economic prowess to claim a role in the international system. Continued determined steps to enhance and consolidate its democracy will undoubtedly increase its clout. The Turkish experience, however, demonstrates to Arab countries that the path to democracy is long, arduous and non-linear. On the other hand, were Turkey to finally live up to the old Ataturk adage so often misused in the past of "peace at home, peace abroad", it could potentially have much more to contribute.


Henri J Barkey is a professor at Lehigh University and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Updated: June 12, 2011 04:00 AM