This article originally appeared in The Guide Istanbul. It has been republished here with permission.
Multiparty democracy was established in Turkey in 1950. But it has since witnessed many ups and downs. The democratic process was interrupted several times by direct military interventions or indirect military interferences. The strong Jacobin state structure started to be dismantled only in the 1980s under the late Turgut Özal who, as Prime Minister and subsequent President of the Republic, liberalized and reformed the economy and the state bureaucracy.
Despite still-existing deficiencies, one of the strong points of the Turkish democracy is its well-designed electoral procedures. The latest election, which took place on June 12, confirmed this once again. More than 40 million people went to the polling stations with practically no irregularity reported, and the computed results started to be announced only one hour after voting ended. The winner was the Justice and Development party (AKP), a conservative party deeply attached to religious values that has been in power since 2002. It won almost 50% of the votes and 326 of the 550 seats in the parliament and, thus, became the majority party again. The People’s Republican Party (CHP), which defines itself not very convincingly as a social democratic party, came second with nearly 26% of the votes and 135 seats in the parliament. The nationalist party MHP got 13% of the votes and 53 seats, while the BDP representing almost exclusively the Kurdish population obtained 36 seats.
One of the main issues to be tackled by the political parties once the parliament starts functioning will be the drafting of a new constitution. This will be an awesome task since the views of the parties differ widely on some crucial constitutional principles. The AKP was hoping to get 367 seats in the parliament, which would have enabled AKP to single-handedly adopt a new constitution. Alternatively, if it had obtained at least 330 seats it could have drafted a constitution and submit it to a referendum for approval by the people. The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was hoping, through one of these methods, to abolish the present parliamentary system and replace it with a presidential system, which would have enabled him to become President of the Republic with wide executive powers. Now, with only 326 votes, he can no longer achieve his aim without the support of the opposition, which has no intention of facilitating his far-reaching objectives.
There are several articles in the present constitution adopted in 1982 that are extremely controversial. In particular, the Kurds believe that some of the wording has inherently racial connotations; CHP is strongly opposed to the modification of some articles, which they consider almost sacrosanct, because, in their view, they enunciate the fundamental philosophy of the Republic created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.
A new constitution is not the only issue that will challenge the new parliament and government. The “Kurdish problem” will also remain extremely critical. Democracy cannot flourish and sustainable stability cannot be achieved as long as the PKK terrorism continues and the Kurdish population considers that its cultural identity is not fully recognized. On the other hand, it should be clear to the Kurds that any erosion of the existing unitary state system—any arrangement for regional autonomy—will never be accepted. However, some decentralization encompassing the entire country could be envisaged while maintaining the exclusive responsibility of the central government in crucial areas, such as internal and external security. In this respect, the regional system of France could serve as a model.
The elections took place a time when the world’s attention was focused on what is called the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the Middle East. This is a spring accompanied by violent storms, and Turkey is particularly affected by them. Some 9,000 Syrians fleeing violence and persecution have already crossed the border and requested refuge in Turkey. The civil war in Libya has dealt a heavy blow to large scale Turkish investments there. In Iraq, the relative political stability, which was achieved after last year’s elections, is still precarious. The new Turkish Government will face daunting challenges in the Middle East and of one them is, of course, repairing Turkish-Israeli relations, which have been badly damaged over the last two years.
The foreign policy issues that the new AKP Government will confront are not limited to the Middle East. The accession process to the European Union has to be revitalized. The Cyprus conflict, which constitutes one of the main obstacles to accession to the EU, remains without a solution since 1963.The initiative to normalize relations with Armenia is still stalled. AKP should more energetically tackle all these problems in the early months of the new mandate and also seek the support of the opposition. Experience has shown that the best period for a government to tackle difficult problems are the first six months. After that all political parties usually concentrate their attention solely on the next elections.
Some people have been surprised by the extent of AKP’s victory. They assumed that, after nine years in power and some controversial policies and attitudes perceived as authoritarian or ideological, the support for AKP would inevitably diminish. To a large extent, the media propagated this opinion as well. The CHP leadership tried to convey the image of a party very confident of its own victory. But they were forgetting that what really matters is economic growth and the scale and quality of social services. In these two areas the performance of AKP is indeed impressive. To give just a few examples, the GDP which was 230 billion dollars in 2002 has now reached the level of 736 billion dollars. The per capita GDP is now 10,000 dollars. At a time when countries such as Spain, Portugal, and particularly Greece have accumulated foreign debts surpassing their GDP, Turkey’s foreign debt is equivalent to only 28.7% of GDP. The economic development has permitted a vast extension of social services. Between 2003 and 2011, some 500 hospitals and 1384 clinics have been built. All citizens have now medical insurance. Most of the people living in shanty towns have now moved to modern apartment houses.
It would be wrong to say that the picture is rosy in every respect. The Turkish democracy is far from being perfect. There have been some attempts to intimidate the media, the freedom of expression continues to be limited, minority rights are not fully respected, and the justice system is in need of substantial reforms. But the remedy to all these problems is still democracy. As Winston Churchill has said, “Democracy is the worst political system, except all the others.”