Tuesday

24th Apr 2018

Analysis

Turkey elections: More democracy or authoritarianism?

  • Turkey could for the first time since 2002 get a coalition government which would be a blow to president Erdogan’s dreams of an almighty presidential system. (Photo: svenwerk)

Turkey is heading to general elections on Sunday (7 June) which many seasoned observers argue will be fateful for the future of Turkish democracy.

The ruling party AKP, which has been at the helm of the country since 2002, is still the frontrunner and will certainly be the biggest party according to all election polls. However, winning big is just not enough for president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party this time around.

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  • The pro-Kurdish party HDP has risen as the best possible counterweight to Erdogan’s ambitions.

Erdogan, who has taken his oath of office by publicly and officially declaring that he would be neutral and above party politics, has been very actively campaigning for AKP, violating the basic principles of the Turkish constitution.

He is asking of voters to elect 400 AKP deputies out of 550 in the parliament, so that his party will go over the threshold of 360 deputies needed to change the constitution without being forced to go to a referendum.

This will enable Turkey, according to Erdogan, to sort out its decades-long and ossified problems and make the Turkish economy one of the strongest on earth.

Deep in his mind, he wants a presidential system.

But it is not the American presidential system he has been envying where checks and balances are strongly entrenched in the political system. Rather he is asking for a Mexican style of presidency where the leader has almost unchecked powers.

Success hangs on the Kurds

For those who think Turkish democracy is at stake, the pro-Kurdish party HDP has risen as the best possible counterweight to Erdogan’s ambitions.

Taking a huge risk, HDP has decided to enter the elections as a party instead of running as independent candidates to give it the past chance of passing the 10 percent threshold needed to get representation in parliament, the highest among Council of Europe countries.

So, for many, the fate of Turkish democracy ironically hinges upon the success of HDP, once seen not more than a window dressing for PKK, recognised as a terrorist organisation by EU, Nato and US.

By expanding and deepening its outreach to almost all walks of life in Turkey i.e. secular, religious, Kurdish, Turkish, Alevites, minorities, the charismatic leader of HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, seems to have succeeded for the first time in the party history to convince at least a considerable part of Turkish constituency in the Western part of the country that he is not a mere puppet of PKK but a democrat.

He and his party is also seen as one of the last chances to stop Erdogan’s ambitions to change the parliamentary system to a presidential system which will bode very ill for fundamental freedoms and rights.

Governing coalition?

If HDP goes above the 10 percent threshold, there is a good chance that AKP for the first time since 2002 will be forced into a coalition government which might give a fatal blow to Erdogan’s dreams of an almighty presidential system.

If not, AKP could gather enough deputies to go to a referendum to change the parliamentary system. Both the main opposition party CHP and the nationalist party MHP, that will certainly pass over the 10 percent threshold, cannot tip the balance.

It is only HDP that could make a difference.

Thinking of the developments since Gezi Park protests and corruption charges of 17 December 2013, a large segment of society is quite concerned if Erdogan and AKP win big enough to change the political system.

Fundamental freedoms and rights, the very basic principles of democracy i.e. rule of law, independence of judiciary, separation of powers, media freedom are at stake in this election.

Press under pressure

The prosecutors and judges who have initiated the corruption charges of 17 December have all been sacked.

Two judges who have decided in favor of releasing Hidayet Karaca, the chairman of Samanyolu TV, one of the biggest broadcasting companies who have been in jail since December for allegedly ‘leading an armed terrorist organisation’ have been very swiftly imprisoned as well, which is unprecedented in Turkish history.

Meanwhile, Erdogan recently sued Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily, which published the footage of the alleged transfer of weapons to radical groups to Syria.

Erdogan is asking prosecutors to punish Dundar with one aggravated, one normal life sentence and 42 years in prison.

These are just a few of many worrisome developments in the last several months.

The fear is that if Erdogan’s party, which he has unconstitutionally campaigned for, comes out of the ballot box strong enough to change the parliamentary system, Turkey will have to brace for a more authoritarian future.

If HDP can succeed in overcoming the threshold, it might contain Erdogan’s ambitions of an omnipotent president.

Selcuk Gultasli is the Brussels bureau chief of Zaman.

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