Concerns About Turkey’s Direction at Home and Abroad as Election Nears

By Patrick Goodenough | June 9, 2011 | 4:39 AM EDT

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen here with Syrian President Bashar Assad during a June 2010 meeting in Istanbul, has pursued closer ties with both Syria and Iran. (AP Photo/Osman Orsal, Pool)

( – Turkish voters are set to hand a third term to the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) this weekend, but the size of its victory will determine how freely Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to amend the constitution.

Erdogan, whose authoritarian tendencies and foreign policy shifts have prompted concerns, hopes to shift the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system. If he succeeds, some observers expect him to then seek the presidency after his presumed next term as prime minister expires in 2015, thus enabling him to extend his tenure as head of the executive branch beyond the normal three terms.

If the AKP obtains a two-thirds majority (367 seats in the 550-seat parliament) in the June 12 election, Erdogan will be able to change the constitution without consulting other parties or Turkish citizens.

If it fails to achieve that target but wins at least 60 percent of the seats (between 330 and 366 seats), then any constitutional amendment will require a referendum.

Recent polls show the AKP at around 50 percent, with the main secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the party established by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – at the 25 point mark.

But Sunday’s outcome could be affected significantly by a sex scandal involving the usually third-placed Nationalist Action Party (MHP). It was polling at around 11 percent before the scandal broke, and is now in disarray, with senior figures having resigned. If the MHP fails to achieve a 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, then the AKP would benefit most under Turkey’s transferable vote system.

Erdogan strongly rejects accusations that his government’s increasingly assertive foreign policies are moving Turkey, a NATO member, away from the West – concerns prompted by his deepening ties with Iran and Syria, support for Hamas, and evident hostility towards Israel.

At home, he has been accused of trying to muzzle critics in the media, an issue that sparked a diplomatic spat last February when U.S. ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone questioned the AKP’s commitment to press freedom after journalists were detained.

“We all want to improve democracy and freedoms in Turkey, but currently Turkey is moving towards a single party rule,” CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told the Voice of America this week, citing the imprisonment of journalists and politicization of courts.

“We are dealing with more repressive and authoritarian methods with a prime minister who claims to know all and do all,” he said.

“The AKP’s Islamist-based politics is gradually leading Turkey away from Ataturk’s legacy of secular democracy toward religious-based authoritarianism, which should be a major concern for the U.S. and Europe,” Heritage Foundation scholars Sally McNamara and Ariel Cohen wrote on Wednesday.

“With the second-largest military in NATO, Turkey has been a significant actor in many NATO operations and continues to stand alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan,” they noted. “However, Ankara’s burgeoning closeness to Tehran and the AKP’s hostility toward Israel undermine Turkey’s reliability as a regional partner for the U.S. and Europe.”

The Heritage experts said the administration should continue to cooperate with Turkey on issues such as Afghanistan and missile defense but also make clear its views on troubling domestic and foreign policies pursued by the AKP.

“After the elections, Washington should tell Ankara that Turkey cannot consider itself a strategic ally of the U.S. while pursuing policies that undermine American and allied interests,” they said.

Popular at home and in Arab states

While Erdogan’s foreign policies worry some in the West, they do not seem to be harming his popularity at home – or in nearby Arab countries.

In a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, released this week, 62 percent of Turkish respondents said they were confident the prime minister would “do the right thing in world affairs,” with his ratings especially high among more religious Muslims (defined as those who pray five times a day).

Large majorities in Egypt (78 percent), Jordan (72 percent) and Lebanon (64 percent) also gave Erdogan high marks, in sharp contrast to the low confidence levels the poll found in some European countries (Germany 25 percent; Poland 17 percent; Spain 12 percent) and Israel (nine percent).

Meanwhile Michigan State University international relations professor Mohammed Ayoob argues that concerns about an AKP shift away from democracy in Turkey are overblown.

Writing on the Foreign Policy Web site, he said Turkey was still undergoing a process of “democratic consolidation, which is hardly ever a unilinear and smooth process.”

“Alternation in power is vital for democratic governance once the process of democratic consolidation has been completed and the threat from extra-constitutional centers of power [i.e., the military] has been eliminated,” Ayoob said. “Turkey is a few years away from achieving this goal. In the meantime, the AKP is the best bet for the success of democracy in Turkey.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow