On October 1, Turkish Parliament resumed after summer recess and closed, defying legislators who want to postpone November 3 elections by keeping Parliament in session. While elections appear set to go ahead, similar political maneuvers will dominate the campaign season.
Parties in Ankara are channeling their energies into preventing nationally known politicians from running, in light of a law that requires a party to win 10 percent of a vote to gain seats in Parliament. The parties are targeting each other rather than appealing to voters because they are vying in a fragmented field and because procedural challenges to opponents have lately proved effective. The supreme election board ruled on September 20 that the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could not run because a court had convicted him of inciting religious and ethnic hatred in 1998. (He had publicly recited a popular poem with militaristic and religious imagery.) Erdogan's party still leads the polls, and the laws at issue have been reformed since Erdogan's conviction and no longer apply. However, the election board declined to decide where legal changes became binding, judging instead that anyone ever convicted of a crime cannot run for office. The ban also fell on former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, a strident Islamist, and on activists representing human-rights and Kurdish causes.
As President Ahmed Necdet Sezer warns that he can dissolve the eventual government if it fails to coalesce, Erdogan's banishment has diluted the elections' force. He has continued to tour the country as the head of his party, telling reporters on October 1 that he hopes Turkey will "soon become a model democracy." If the AKP wins the elections, deputy party leader Abdullah Gul will probably replace him. However, the election board gave Erdogan a chance to re-enter the government, saying that if his criminal record is quashed he would be eligible to stand for future parliamentary membership. His future candidacy would presumably not damage AKP's popularity. Since constitutional changes in 2002 strengthened Turkey's commitment to free speech, the principal effect of the board's September 20 decision may be to prevent the most popular candidate from winning office.
Other candidates with strong bases may also lose the chance to serve the new government. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP), and the Motherland Party (ANAP) led by Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, may not garner 10 percent of the vote. These parties, which currently form a governing coalition, have dominated Turkish political life since the 1980s. But opinion polls indicate that they may not be able to make their case in the next government. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), another coalition partner, also faces elimination; so may the True Path Party (DYP), the principal opposition faction. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has dismissed opinion polls that suggest both parties border on 10 percent of the vote. He derided parties that wanted to delay elections at a September 28 rally. "Their goal is very obvious: to establish a government without the MHP," the news agency Anatolia quoted him as saying. Meanwhile, the DYP formed an alliance with the Democratic Turkey Party (DTP), reportedly boosting its chances of entering parliament.
Whoever ends up in the legislature, all this jockeying seems unlikely to break Turkey's cycle of crises. It also will probably discourage public debate on the benefits and obligations of joining the European Union, which will consider Turkey's application in December. On several occasions since Ecevit relented in July to pave the way for elections, the government has seemed on the brink of collapse. Yilmaz said his party would break the coalition if the MHP continues to block reforms aimed at easing Turkey's accession. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives.] Yilmaz also called on September 13 and on September 30 for postponing elections until after the European Union's December gathering. Yilmaz presumably has calculated that his party would bask in the glow of a European welcome. However, his visible maneuvering may be to blame for his party's sagging popularity and for defections by leading party members. By courting crisis, Yilmaz may end up in a party locked out of the next government.
Parties that do not make it into the new parliament may perpetuate a focus on politics rather than on policy. Some have already put out feelers about changing election law to fuse party lists or lower the cutoff to 5 percent. Former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem's young party, the New Turkey Party (YTP), already favors lowering the threshold. This is a less ambitious platform than the popular Cem promised when he announced his new party in July. Cem spoke then of promoting religious freedom, tolerance of ethnic Kurds, and market-oriented reforms. With Ecevit holding onto power, such goals seem stifled. And all these political games suggest that old habits in Turkish political life may be harder to break than Cem or other reformists might hope.
These old games are, however, occurring in a new context. Civil society institutions have more legitimacy to oppose political manipulation than they used to. Moreover, the position of the presidency, strengthened over the years in reforms, now acts as a bulwark against chaos. President Sezer has reminded squabbling politicians that he can dissolve Parliament if it fails to govern. A trained lawyer and jurist, President Sezer may manage to end the postponement turmoil. Even if he does, though, one might conclude that the party system still needs reform. The shenanigans of the past several weeks, coming after reforms and on the eve of possible admittance to the European Union, should show Turkish politicians that governing this democracy will require more adroit thinking after November 3.
Mevlut Katik is London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.