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Turkey: drawing the electoral battle lines - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Over the past two years what could be described as Turkey’s identity crisis has attracted much attention. Strategists wonder which way Turkey might turn, towards the Islamic world with a neo-Ottoman vision or towards Europe with a narrative of modernisation.

Although Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, pretended that it did not exist, the question has always been in the filigree of Turkish politics. Ataturk hoped that by seeking a place in Europe, he would close the Ottoman chapter, which, in its final phase, had brought defeat and shame. In time, it seemed that his dream had been realised when Turkey was accepted as a member of the Council of Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Today, however, the European Union is in no mood to welcome Turkey as a member, although bits and pieces of the Ottoman Empire such as Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary have been more than welcome.

The mood in Turkey is turning against the EU, perhaps even against the West as a whole. That change of mood is affecting Turkey’s traditional attachment to a secular system, enabling the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to inject a bigger dose of religion into Turkish politics.

These issues are likely feature in this year’s crucial election campaign which may be under way already.

Until recently, AKP was almost certain to win a third mandate. The economy was doing well while the opposition remained divided and leaderless.

Turkey’s peculiar electoral system is designed to help the bigger parties. To win seats in the Grand National Assembly or parliament, a party must receive at least 10 per cent of the votes. The votes of parties that fall below that threshold are proportionally allocated to parties that have won more than 10 per cent. In that way, AKP, which won 43 per cent of the votes last time, ended up with 60 per cent of the seats.

However, things are now changing.

For the first time in almost a decade, partly reflecting the global recession, the economy is slowing down. This year has seen the largest budget deficit since AKP took the reins almost a decade ago. While inflation remains in check, unemployment is beginning to rise. Although the Turkish economy is still doing better than that of many EU members, the myth of AKP having a Midas touch is punctured.

More importantly perhaps, the opposition may be clustering around a modernised Republican People’s Party (CHP).

This is one of the two parties that Ataturk set up in the 1920s as part of his plan for a British-style two-party parliamentary system. For almost three decades, Ataturk’s closest associate, General Ismet Inonu, led the CHP. The other party, the Democrat, disappeared in the coup d’etat led by General Cemal Gursel in 1960.

Over the years, the CHP lost much of its lustre and prestige. It became a prop of the military establishment, a ventriloquist’s dummy that the generals pulled out of their caps to please the American allies. Many Turks saw the CHP as the military’s accomplice in periodical onslaughts against Turkish democracy. To attenuate that image, CHP adopted a leftist discourse that alienated religious and conservative Turks already uneasy about the party’s radical secularism.

With the loss of its last charismatic leader Bulent Ecevit a decade ago, CHP appeared headed for the museum of endangered species.

Nevertheless, CHP seems to be making a comeback, with a new charismatic leader in Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Elected last spring, Kilicdaroglu has succeeded in renewing virtually the entire upper structure of the party’s leadership. And, for the first time in more than two decades, CHP now has a credible presence in virtually every corner of the country.

To old CHP stalwarts, the very name of the new leader has a magic ring. His first name, Kemal, reminds them of Ataturk. His surname, which means ‘Son of the Custodian of the Sword’, portrays him as a knight heading for a decisive battle.

Moreover, I am told that the new leadership is engaged in ‘intensive negotiations’ with half a dozen smaller parties to form an electoral coalition against AKP. That would be a novelty in Turkey where coalitions were always formed after an election. If even half of the parties engaged in the current negotiations agree to pool resources, the new bloc could win a bigger plurality than AKP.

On top of all that Mr. Kilicdaroglu is a gifted orator and a telegenic performer.

There is one problem, however: CHP is still unsure about its political identity.

Some of its leaders want it to become ‘a little bit Islamic’ to compete with AKP by growing a metaphorical beard and buying a rosary. They also want it to shed what is left of its old socialist accent by adopting conservative positions on a range of social and life-style issues.

In other words, they want a light version of AKP.

Such a recipe could doom CHP to another resounding electoral defeat.

The opposition could return to power only if a majority of voters are tired of AKP, in which case they would be prepared to try something different. They would not buy a light version of what they want to discard.

AKP is trying to blur the secular character of the Turkish state. The opposition should counter that by reaffirming what has been the founding principle of Turkish nationhood for more than 80 years: a secular state within a religious society. This means that state and religion are assigned distinct spaces within which they could function and develop their full potential in the interests of the Turkish people.

CHP could portray AKP as a threat to that delicate equilibrium.

Beyond that, what helps win elections are imaginative and daring economic, social and foreign policy options. Initially, AKP won by offering that.

Today, however, it seems to have run out of ideas.

As far as economic policy is concerned, under AKP, Turkey seems to be on autopilot.

AKP has also led itself into a wall as far as dealing with the so-called ‘Kurdish problem’ is concerned. In fact, it may be preparing to reignite the Kurdish war in the hope of caressing the chauvinistic tendencies of part of the electorate. Turkish foreign policy is also in tatters with gesticulations, such as a phoney war with Israel and public flirtation with Iran, are offered as substitutes for national strategy. The cherry on top is the new and wider level of corruption introduced by AKP with incestuous relations between government and business.

Not surprisingly, most polls show that, for the first time in a decade, AKP is vulnerable.

In other words, this year’s general election is CHP’s to lose, a big challenge for both Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan and the opposition’s rising star Mr. Kilicdaroglu.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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