News / Europe

Political Stakes Are High for Turkey's Erdogan

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (L) receives Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace of Cankaya in Ankara, June 14, 2011
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (L) receives Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace of Cankaya in Ankara, June 14, 2011

Sunday's general election in Turkey resulted in a resounding victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AK. But the victory was bittersweet for the prime minister and his party as they fell well short of a two-thirds majority that would enable them to rewrite the nation's constitution.

Justice and Development Party supporters are celebrating their party's win. And the prime minister dropped his usual combative rhetoric to reach out to voters.

Erdogan said the people gave a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. That task, however, may not be so easy for Erdogan. He was hoping to win a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament, but now needs a referendum to do so.

According to Sinan Ulgen of the political research firm Edam, the result has dealt a major blow to Erdogan's ambitions, namely his desire to take on the role of president.

"The prime minister had made clear his desire to introduce a U.S.- or French-style presidential system," said Ulgen. "He views the introduction of a presidential system as way to concentrate even more executive power. With this distribution of seats, it's clearly very, very difficult to move forward on that."

The current office of the president in Turkey is largely ceremonial. Erdogan’s desire is to push ahead with plans to rewrite the constitution with an enhanced role for the presidency and a diminished role for the military.

But the main opposition People's Republican Party, or CHP, and some senior members within the prime minister's own party claim a more powerful presidency would subjugate parliament.

Political scientist Nuray Mert said Erdogan's personal ambition may cost the country, especially on the issue of Kurdish rights.

"It will not promise anything to Kurds," said Mert. "No more liberties; no more rights; no recognition of Kurdish demands. That's why there is this big disappointment."

Supporters of the country's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, the BDP, had reason to celebrate this week. The party increased its representation in parliament from 20 to 36, taking seats away from Erdogan's party.

The BDP is seeking greater Kurdish rights, including more autonomy and education in the Kurdish language. If Erdogan chooses to meet those demands as part of a more liberal constitution, he may find a willing partner with the People's Republican Party.

Ulgen of the political research firm Edam explains. "The new leader has adopted a much more liberal approach and therefore going forward, AKP may find a much more constructive counterpart in the Turkish parliament, in order to enact needed constitutional amendments."

Observers say Erdogan's abrasive style, while popular with much of the Turkish electorate, does not lend itself to consensus-building. In fact, his previous effort to introduce a new constitution broke down because of his caustic approach.

But being short of seats needed to submit a new constitution to a referendum, political scientist Cengiz Aktar said Erdogan may opt to pursue his presidential goals, and limited reforms aimed at pacifying nationalist voters.  

"He may say, 'I have the majority, I continue to rule according to my views and vision for this country.' In that case, a modern liberal constitution in Turkey won't solve the Kurdish conflict," said Aktar. "As long as the country can't solve its Kurdish conflict, anything can happen. All stakes are open, and [there are] big, big question marks for Turkey. This is the price to pay."

On election day, the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984, warned it will intensify its operations if the new government does not immediately take steps to address its demands. The pro-Kurdish BDP also has warned of major civil unrest. Turkey is at a crossroads, and the prime minister appears to have little time to decide which route to take.

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