Vol. 5 Num 1119 Tue. July 24, 2007  

Turkey elections

Turkey went to the polls on July 22 after months of tension between the ruling AK Party, which has strong Islamic ties, and secularists. The powerful military has reminded Turkey that it is ready to defend secularism. Political campaigning ended in Turkey ahead of Sunday's general election, seen as one of the most important in the nation's history.

The early election was called to resolve a political crisis after parliament repeatedly failed to agree on a candidate for president. Secular parties and the powerful military blocked the nomination, by the Islamic-rooted ruling AK Party, of a devout Muslim for the post. They said Turkey's secularism was in dangera claim the AKP dismissed. Some 42 million people are eligible to vote, while 14 parties are vying for seats in the 550-member parliament.

The election had been called in an effort to break a stalemate over a package of constitutional reforms proposed by the current government of Erdogan. Those reforms include a proposal for the country's president to be elected directly by the people, rather than by parliament. They were put forward by the AK Party, whose candidate for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, was repeatedly rejected by parliament. Turkey's current president and its secularist establishment have vowed to resist what they regard as the Islamist agenda of the AK Party.

Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan's government has been focusing its campaign on its economic record. The early poll was called after MPs from secular parties and the ruling AK Party reached a deadlock, after failing to agree on a candidate for president. The AKP is likely to win the most votes and continue ruling the country, so they may be the only party to vote for. The opposition accuses the Islamic-based AK Party of threatening Turkey's secular system.

Erdogan says that Turkey is not walking in the footsteps of Kemal Ataturk (founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey) with the AKP in government. In the last four years Turkey has been relatively stable, compared with the previous governments. Although the AKP government has not tackled corruption at state level, I don't see any alternative among the other parties.

The opposition paints the ruling AK party in shabby colors, but Erdogan's government denies the claims, saying its record in office proves the contrary. The government has overseen almost five straight years of economic growth and opened membership negotiations with the European Union. Critics slam the government because the AKP's ideology is not in tune with democracy, secularism, or equality.

Turkey's Prime Minister says the AKP has a conservative democratic ideology. Someone who says "we are conservative democrats" doesn't know anything about politics, in my book. Conservatism and democracy are opposite political beliefs.

The rival camps have been blaring out their songs and messages in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city. One party alone has more than 400 loud-speaker vans criss-crossing the city, which is now festooned with party banners and flags. Tension marks the polls because of the differences over the presidential nominee.

According to one estimate, three parties will win more than 10% of the votesthe AKP, MHP and CHP. Even if AKP has more seats than the rest, there might be a coalition government, which is a risk for the country's stability. Many people feel that it would be better to have a one-party government, which will be careful not to cause any tensions over Islam and secularism. A fragile economy, Turkey needs to be handled with care.

Commentators say that the most important outcome of the elections will be democracy and stability in the country. For the sake of the Turkish people, compromise will be a must after this election. The ruling AKP will probably get the most votes, followed either by the CHP (Republican People's Party) or MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), and the independents. If the AKP can't form a government, then the second scenario will be a CHP and MHP coalition.

The recent Turkish military operation on the Iraqi border will only help the ruling party to gain more sympathy and votes. Turkey is home to a sizeable Kurdish minority, which by some estimates, constitutes up to a fifth of the population. However, they complain that the government has tried to destroy their Kurdish identity and that they suffer economic disadvantage and human rights violations.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the best known and most radical of the Kurdish movements, launched a guerilla campaign in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands became refugees in the conflict between the PKK and the army in the 1980s and 1990s.

The past few years have seen an upsurge in rebel attacks, which had subsided after the 1999 capture of the group's leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the US and the European Union.

Turkey's powerful militarywhich sees itself as the guardian of the secular systemhas a long history of involvement in politics. In recent years, as Ankara has set its sights firmly on European Union membership, the profile of the military has been lower in public life. However, the military questioned the government's commitment to secularism in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2007, amid a stand-off between the Islamist-rooted administration and the secularists. The army warned that it would defend Turkey's secular system.

Turkey's longing for EU membership has led the leadership to compromises, including reforms, to appease the bosses of EU. Turkey has long been at odds with its close neighbour, Greece, over territorial disputes in the Aegean and the divided island of Cyprus. Now Turkey has recognized Cyprus.

Turkey became a EU candidate country in 1999 and, in line with EU requirements, went on to introduce substantial human rights and economic reforms. The death penalty was abolished, tougher measures were brought in against torture, and the penal code was overhauled. Reforms were introduced in the areas of women's rights, and in Kurdish culture, language, education and broadcasting.

Women's rights activists have said that the reforms do not go far enough, and have accused the government of lacking full commitment to equality, and for acting only under EU pressure. After intense bargaining, EU membership talks were launched in October 2005. Accession negotiations are expected to take about 10 years.

So far, the going has not been easy. The breakthrough came just weeks after Turkey agreed to recognize Cyprus as an EU member, despite unfavourable comments over its declaration that this was not tantamount to full diplomatic recognition.

As a member of Nato, Turkey is close to Western powers. Ankara's drive toward EU is more for security than for the economy, besides keeping Turkey in the US-led Nato fold. Both USA and UK support Istanbul's claims for EU membership as that would benefit the economic interests of Turkey, EU and other Western countries.

After years of mounting difficulties, which brought the country close to economic collapse, a tough recovery program was agreed with the IMF in 2002. Since then, Turkey has seen impressive progress. Economic growth has been strong and inflation has fallen dramatically.

However, foreign debt remains a major burden. Turkey's main trading partners are the European Union (52% of exports and 42% of imports as of 2005), the United States, Russia and Japan. Turkey has taken advantage of a customs union with the European Union, signed in 1995, to increase its industrial production destined for exports, while at the same time benefiting from EU-origin foreign investment in the country.

In 2005, exports amounted to $ 73.5 billion while the imports stood at $ 116.8 billion, with increases of 16.3% and 19.7%, respectively, compared to 2004. For 2006, the exports amounted to $ 85.8 billion, representing an increase of 16.8% over 2005. After years of low levels of foreign direct investment (FDI), Turkey succeeded in attracting $ 8.5 billion in FDI in 2005, and is expected to attract a higher figure in 2006.

A series of large privatizations, the stability fostered by the start of Turkey's EU accession negotiations, strong and stable growth, and structural changes in the banking, retail, and telecommunications sectors have all contributed to a rise in foreign investment.

The ruling dispensation believes that victory for AKP party would further promote the state's EU goals, as well as economic and security interests, notwithstanding the fact that the poll is seen as a crucial test of its secular tradition.

Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.