Turkey’s leaders consolidate backing

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The third consecutive victory of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the parliamentary elections on 12 June this year was no surprise. Since coming to power in 2002, the moderate Islamic AKP has ushered in a period of political stability and economic growth of a kind the country has not seen for generations.

The cycle of coups that characterised the second half of the 20th century appears to have ceased and the economy is thriving. Having negotiated a dip in 2008-09, Turkey is now enjoying strong growth and has proven resilient to the debt crisis afflicting much of southern Europe. Already the 16th-largest economy in the world, Ankara aims to join the top 10 by 2023.

The AKP’s election victory was a comprehensive one. An impressive 87 per cent of the 50-million-strong electorate turned out to vote, and one in two cast their ballot in favour of the incumbents. The AKP increased its share of the vote to 49.9 per cent, from 46.5 per cent in the elections of 2007 and 34.3 per cent in 2002.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) also increased its share, to 25.9 per cent from 20.8 per cent in 2007, while the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) returned 13 per cent of the popular vote, down from 14.3 per cent.

Constitutional changes in Turkey

But the poll returns were not an unqualified success for the ruling party. The AKP’s key domestic priority for the forthcoming term is to introduce a new constitution. The proposed changes are designed to serve two aims: to consolidate the authority of the executive at the expense of the military; and to protect the AKP from judicial challenges based on the claim that its Islamic tendencies are at odds with the country’s explicitly secular constitution.

To make unilateral changes to the constitution, the AKP required a two-thirds majority in parliament – or 367 of the 550 seats – a goal from which it fell short. The next objective was to return 330 members of parliament, a threshold that would enable it to draw up its proposed constitutional changes and submit them to a popular referendum. Again, the party failed to achieve the target. The geographical distribution of votes meant that, despite increasing its share of the popular vote, the AKP saw its number of parliamentary seats fall from 341 to 326.

“The election results were no surprise,” says Andrew Birch, a Turkey specialist at IHS Global Insight in Washington. “I don’t think anyone expected the AKP to be able to get a majority to change the constitution themselves, though they probably hoped to get to the threshold to call a referendum.”

For Turkey as a whole, the AKP’s failure to secure a majority with which it could dictate terms could be the best outcome. Opponents of the regime had feared that were the party given carte blanche it would introduce a presidential system mimicking that of Russia, where executive power is concentrated in the office of the president at the expense of political opponents and the other pillars of state.

Since his election victory, Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister and leader of the AKP, has been at pains to stress that his aim is for political conciliation.

“We will be seeking consensus with the main opposition, the opposition, parties outside of parliament, the media, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], with academics, with anyone who has something to say,” he declared in Ankara when the results were announced.

Constitutional reform a priority for Turkey

Such a comprehensive consensus is an impossible dream. But Erdogan’s conciliatory words reflect a recognition of the importance of placating Turkey’s diverse interest groups and the scale of the challenge ahead.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.