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High Unemployment Expected to Dominate Turkey Elections

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses his Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters during an election rally in Diyarbakir, in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, June 1, 2011
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses his Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters during an election rally in Diyarbakir, in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, June 1, 2011

Other issues on voters’ minds include constitutional reform and an easing of tensions between Turks and the country’s Kurdish minority

Ahead of parliamentary elections in Turkey Sunday VOA Middle East Managing Editor Davin Hutchins spoke about key issues, main players and the significance of the poll with VOA Turkish Service reporter Baris Ornarli, who is currently in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, covering the ballot. Below is a transcript with the highlights of their talk.

Hutchins: What are the big issues facing Turks in this election?

Ornarli: According to the electorate, the single biggest issue is jobs. According to official figures, there’s 12 percent unemployment in Turkey, but it’s reasonable to assume unofficial figures are higher. In practicality, however, this election will determine how the government will pursue constitutional reform, and part of that is how it will try to forge a solution to the Kurdish issue. Another related issue that is voiced in opposition circles is that the opposition is hoping to check or, in other words, tame the incumbents’ political power in this election.

Hutchins: You’ve been talking with a lot of representatives from the various political parties in your interviews for the VOA’s Turkish Service. Can you give a character sketch of each of the parties, what they represent, what their platforms are?

Ornarli: The incumbent party is the Justice and Development Party. They’ve been in power in Turkey since 2002. They speak largely to a conservative electorate, have a pro-business platform, and have a stated pro-EU platform. In addition to finding support from a mass majority of conservatives in Turkey, they have secured support from political liberals due to the reforms they undertook in hopes of gaining Turkey access into the European Union. This center-of-right political party is led by the charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The main opposition party in Turkey is the People’s Republican Party. The People’s Republican Party is a center-of-left party, Kemalist in ideology, and is the party of the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. They are voicing strong opposition against the Justice and Development Party, in terms of democratic credentials and attitudes towards secularism. They are social democratic in nature, free market oriented, pro-Western and pro-EU.

The other opposition party is the Nationalist Action Party. They are a right-winged party led by Devlet Bahceli and support a conservative nationalistic ideology. Devlet Bahceli is an economist by training and he has some opposition but he is able to secure the support from the nationalists by expressing his ideas to the Kurdish question.

The fourth party that will likely make it into the parliament in the June 12 election is the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Any party that does not get 10 percent of the national vote does not get represented in parliament, and the Peace and Democracy Party does not have the 10 percent electorate support, so its candidates run as independents. They will form a group within parliament after the elections. They are a pro-Kurdish party, supported by the vast majority of Kurds in Turkey, and their platform is finding a solution to the Kurdish question and securing more political and cultural rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Hutchins: Turkey has been a functioning democracy for some time. Do you think there are any lessons that the emerging democracies in the Arab world like Tunisia or Egypt could learn from Turkey and specifically in this upcoming election?

Ornarli: Well, I think it’s important - and I think it’s a well established fact now - that Turks are shying away from the word “model.” They prefer to not be looked at as a model for these countries. From the government’s perspective at the very least, they could be considered a source for inspiration.

It’s been a bumpy road for Turkish democracy to say the least. There have been several coups - political meddling if you will - from the Turkish military and [this meddling] has just recently been diminished to a bare minimum. I think the reform process is still continuing, so it’s not a completed process. But nonetheless, Turkey is a functioning democracy. It is an aspirant to join the European Union and it’s already a member of the Council on Europe, but one must make a note that the Turkish experience is unique.

It’s difficult to compare Turkey to other countries but there still is, what Turks like to say, a case to be made that they are a source of inspiration. The Turkish population is 99 percent Muslim. It’s a strictly secular state and it’s a functioning democracy, and that’s where the term model comes into play. Turkey’s still growing and it’s still evolving, so there’s much to be learned, but any country can achieve certain success - like Turkey has - with a free market economy and a democracy.

Hutchins: Is there a concern that if the [ruling] AKP strengthens its majority - if there’s an overwhelming win - they will actually be successful in pushing through changes to the constitution? On the one hand, the European Union has said there has to be judicial and constitutional reform for Turkey to be a part of the EU, but on the other hand, the people are afraid that this will consolidate [Prime Minister] Erdogan’s power.

Ornarli: What’s ideal, and even from the European perspective, is that a new constitution is due. One must note that the current constitution in Turkey was written after the 1980 coup. The 1982 constitution was written by the military. So there’s a push to reform this constitution, and that’s the number one issue after these elections.

The question here is whether the new constitution is going to be drafted from a compromise among various political actors or if it’s going to be drafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party itself. That’s why these elections are important. If the Justice and Development Party secures 367 seats in the Parliament of 550 seats, it can change the constitution outright without asking the opposition for any support or opinion. If it gets more than 330 seats, it can draft the constitution itself, but it must submit it to a public referendum. If it gets less than 330 seats, then whatever new constitution is drafted in the Parliament, it must be a result of a compromise among all the political parties in Parliament.

So, there’s no question that a new constitution is needed - one that’s a civilian (secular) constitution - in Turkey, but the question is whether it is going to be drafted by the ruling party on its own, which would lead to a consolidation of its power, or if this is going to be done through compromise in a more democratic fashion.