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Upcoming Turkey Election Highlights Key Issues Facing Country

Men sit in a tea house in Istanbul, with a campaign poster of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on display nearby, June 9, 2011
Men sit in a tea house in Istanbul, with a campaign poster of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on display nearby, June 9, 2011

Among the most pressing for Turkish voters are the economy, planned constitutional amendments and a resolution of the Kurdish issue

Ahead of parliamentary elections in Turkey Sunday VOA's Davin Hutchins spoke about the key issues facing Turkish voters with VOA Turkish Service reporter Baris Ornarli, who is currently in the country’s capital, Ankara, covering the poll.

Hutchins: The Turkish economy seems good, inflation is low and the economy had 8.9 percent growth last year. Yet unemployment is in the double digits at around 11 percent and it is even worse for people under the age of 30. What role will the economy play in this election? Is the fear about the public debt, one that’s sweeping Greece and other European countries, a risk for Turkey moving forward?

Ornarli: If you go out and speak to the voters, unemployment is Turkey’s number one issue in this election. Turkey has always had a high level of unemployment, but it has other economic problems as well. It has a large [budget] deficit and a large trade deficit. International financial organizations are especially concerned with these problems. But from the electorate’s standpoint, unemployment is important. One must take note that official figures only go so far; it’s reasonable to expect that Turkey’s unemployment rate is higher than the official figures.

Turkey faired well in the global financial crisis, partly because it had reformed its banking system after the financial crisis in 2001. In that financial crisis, the value of the Turkish Lira had lost 50 percent of its value. Following the crisis, Turkey embarked upon a large banking reform process, and that yielded the result we see today. While most banks in the West were suffering under the financial turmoil, Turkish banks faired well.

Turkey suffered in 2009 in terms of GDP growth because its export markets were hampered by the financial crisis, but otherwise it faired relatively well. There’s been a good upward trend in terms of growth, but unemployment is still a concern for the electorate.

Hutchins: Let’s talk about the constitution and the effort to reform it. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, who is affiliated with the Justice and Development Party, has said he would like to rewrite the constitution, partly to strengthen the executive branch but also to comply with European norms since Turkey has had a long held campaign to join the European Union. But the opposition does not support this and they are concerned about too many radical changes to the constitution. What are the issues here?

Ornarli: The point is well made that Turkey is in need of a civilian constitution. The current constitution in Turkey was drafted in 1982 following the 1980 coup, and it was drafted by a general. So there is this push, especially from the European Union, that the Turkish constitution needs to be turned into a civilian one.

There are issues to reforming the constitution in terms of justice, Kurdish rights and issues with respect to freedoms. However, the question is - who is going to draft this constitution? Is it going to be the ruling Justice and Development Party that is going to draft it on its own? Will they seek input from civil society? Will they seek input from the political opposition?

The political opposition wants, in terms of a new constitution, to have their say and this is going to be determined by how many seats each political party gets in the election. If the ruling Justice and Development Party gets 367 seats out of the 550 seats in Parliament, they have the right to change the constitution outright. If they only get 330 seats out of the 550, they could change the constitution but they must submit it to a public referendum. If they get anything less than 330 seats, they will have to seek the support of the political opposition in parliament.

In effect, this new constitution will have to be a product of compromise. That’s what the opposition is pushing for and that’s what political liberals are pushing for. So how the constitution will be drafted in the upcoming elections will be determined by the make-up of the political forces in parliament after these elections.

The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party is the official party representing the Kurdish perspective in the elections, but there’s concern that they won’t reach the required 10 percent threshold to have a representation in the parliament. Will this run the risk of actually marginalizing the Kurds’ voice in government and contribute to the radicalization or marginalization of the Kurds in Turkish society?

Ornarli: The 10 percent issue has largely been circumvented by the Kurdish political movement. There is a 10 percent threshold that is needed to be represented in Parliament. Support of the Kurds is below 10 percent, and so Kurdish politicians run their candidates as independents. Independent candidates in Turkey are not subject to the 10 percent threshold, so they are elected as independents. Once the parliament convenes, they join together and form a parliamentary group. In effect, they will have a political party in parliament; it’s just a way of circumventing the 10 percent threshold.

The Kurdish candidates hope they can win around 30 to 35 seats. This is their political outlet, but largely they are still paying attention to what the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) says on this issues. The PKK is a terrorist organization, considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe, but nonetheless, they do have a say and influence in Turkish politics, especially on Kurdish issues. At the very least, the Peace and Democracy Party listens to what the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan - who is currently jailed in Turkey - say.

There is a concern of marginalization which would lead to violence if it is not resolved soon. As the PKK has said, there is a unilateral ceasefire in place. But they also have said that this ceasefire will expire on June 15 if there is no progress on the Kurdish issue. That’s only a few days after the elections, of course, so much remains to be seen.