Early Elections in Turkey

So Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he’ll call for early elections, either on June 24 or July 1.

This would be early, but not greatly so. Turkey’s Parliament runs on a five-year term, and the last one was elected in November 2002, so he’d have to call elections within a few months anyway.

What’s interesting here is the precipitating incident. Turkey’s Presidency comes open in a few weeks. The President is elected for a single seven-year term, and the current President entered office in May 2000. So it’s time to appoint a new one. The President is appointed by Parliament, but Parliament needs a two-thirds majority to elect. The Prime Minister’s ruling party is just a few votes short of the needed majority, and the opposition parties — in a rare show of unity — boycotted the vote, denying them even a quorum. (There are some constitutional and legal wrangles here, which can be elided.)

What’s the problem? Well, Erdogan’s chosen President is his current Finance Minister, Abdulah Gul. Both Erdogan and Gul are members of the Justice and Development Party, which is an “Islamist” party. The meaning of “Islamist” is fiercely debated. Erdogan and Gul say it’s just like being a Christian Democrat party in Europe. Their critics (and some party members) say there’s more to it than that, and that the party’s Islamism extends to imposing religious values on Turkish society. This is a huge deal in Turkey, which is an Islamic country but which is also fiercely proud of its secular political tradition. Much of this is about symbolism — Gul’s wife wears a headscarf! — but symbolism matters.

So Erdogan is going for a snap vote, presumably hoping to pick up a few more seats. Could happen. On the other hand, if he loses seats, there’d be pressure to appoint a different, less overtly Islamic candidate.

There’s a lot of support for Gul. Or, if not for Gul himself, at least for someone like him. The Justice and Development Party is pretty popular, partly because it’s seen as having done a good job of running the country in the last few years, and partly beause it represents the aspirations of a huge swath of Turkish society. Very broadly speaking, it’s a center-right party of the middle and lower middle classes. One of its key demographics is country folk who have moved to the city in the last generation. These people tend to be hard-working, socially conservative, ardently nationalist and more religious than the established local populations. But there are a lot of them — Turkey has seen a huge shift in population to its cities in the last two decades.

The opposition to Gul’s candidacy is split several ways. There are liberals — Turkey does have some. There are professionals and urban elites who resent the newcomers and their “backward” ways. There are trade unions, who tend to be left-wing and very secular. Between them, they’ve managed to get several hundred thousand people into the streets to protest in the last couple of weeks.

And then there’s the military.

The military is the wild card here. A few days ago, shortly after Gul’s candidacy was announced, the Army General Staff announced that it was following the presidential election “with concern”. “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the parties to this [secular versus Islamists] debate and is the absolute defender of secularism.” The army added that it reserved the right to “take action” as warranted.

That’s scary stuff. The military has overthrown four civilian governments in Turkey since 1960, the last one in a “soft coup” in 1997.

On the other hand, the bar is a lot higher these days. Turkey is an EU candidatenow, and military intervention would set its candidacy back by years. Turkey is also a major destination for foreign investment, and has seen five years of hothouse economic growth. Nobody wants to derail that gravy train. So while the growl from the darkness is alarming, the beast is still deep in its cave.

Fingers crossed for a fair and clean election with an outcome that wins general acceptance. The region could use some good news.

12 thoughts on “Early Elections in Turkey

  1. “and the opposition parties — in a rare show of unity — boycotted the vote, denying them even a quorum.”

    Unless I’m missing something, I don’t think it would be that rare, since there’s only one opposition party in parliament.

  2. I think you need to question this northern European assumption that having only one opposition party necessarily means that the opposition is united.

  3. David, there’s only one large opposition party, but there are between three and ten small opposition parties — depending on how you count individual indpendent members. It’s true that last election, only two big parties got into Parliament. However, defections and by-elections over the last four years have led to about a dozen MPs who are not members of the big two.

    The largest of these small parties is the True Path, which actually led the coutnry for a while under Demirel and Tansu Ciller. It has a whopping four (4) representatives.

    — Turkish politics are a bit odd, in that a party must get 10% of the vote to get represented in Parliament. That’s a lot, so usually only three or four parties get in. But failure to get into Parliament, while annoying, is not crippling; many parties thrive at the regional and municipal levels without ever sending a man to Parliament.

    Doug M.

  4. Doug,

    A few clarifications:

    (i) Abdullah Gül (name spelled with double l) is currently the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Turkey, not finance minister. He is also a former prime minister of Turkey.

    (ii) The issue of quorum also requires some further clarifications. The usual quorum in the Turkish Parliament is 184 MPs. The Erdogan-led party has 352 seats in the Parliament. To elect the President a two-thirds majority of 367 votes is needed in the first two rounds of voting – Abdullah Gül received 357 votes on the first round. In the third round of voting a majority of 276 votes is sufficient to elect the President.

    The opposition claimed that the quorum for electing the President was not reached because fewer than 367 MPs voted in the first round of voting. Following threats from the Army the constitutional court ruled that there was no quorum, nevertheless, the by “quorum” is not meant the usual quorum of 184.

    (iii) Unsurprisingly, the world media is not discussing in more detail what is meant by an “Islamist” party, or a party with “Islamic roots.”

    You stated that others claim that the Erdogan-led party intents to “impose religious values”, however, there is precious little details about what are the “religious values” that they are wish to impose, and there is no mention of what precisely does this party intent to impose.

    It is more accurate to state that what this political party intents to do is introduce more religious freedom, i.e. to enable Abdullah Gül’s wife to wear a headscarf without authors using exclamation marks to state this fact. So what if Abdullah Gül’s wife wears a headscarf? If she chooses to wear an item of clothing that does not mean that others will be forced to wear it too, does it?

    (iv) Many Turkish people fail to understand how come they can wear a headscarf and go to work or university in predominantly Muslim countries or predominantly Christian counties, but not in their own country. If a political party would like to introduce more religious freedom that does not imply that it is ‘”Islamist”, whatever that means. Religious freedom and imposing religious values are two very different terms, which imply two very different things. This is a subject that needs to be treated with great care and sensitivity if one is to remain objective and unbiased.

  5. Fidel,

    Did I write finance? D’oh. I know he is the foreign minister…

    As I said in my third paragraph — there are some constitutional and legal wrangles here, which can be elided (skipped past). The court’s decision seems dubious to me, but I am not an expert on Turkish constitutional law. Anyway, Erdogan does not seem too unhappy — I have the impression he’s content to call elections now.

    As to the headscarf — a fear does not have to be justified to be real. Also, while it may seem strange to keep the headscarf out of universities and government offices, it has been Turkey’s tradition since Ataturk decreed it nearly eighty years ago. Bringing it back may seem like a small thing, but in a Turkish context it would have huge symbolic meaning. It would be rolling back some part of Ataturk’s legacy! And that does deserve an exclamation point.

    Doug M.

  6. Doug,

    Yeah, I often make similar mistakes and write things like “finance” instead of “foreign” because the next point in my mind is about finances, for example. I wrote to clarify it to the reader who may not be so familiar with the political situation in Turkey.

    The same goes for the quorum. Erdogan and his political party are hugely popular in Turkey with almost two thirds of seats in the Turkish Parliament, hence I wanted to clarify that we are dealing with a special “quorum” — not the standard notion.

    As a side note — Erdogan should be unhappy because if it were any other political party it would get its candidate elected as President, however, given the fact that the Army made such explicit threats he cannot go openly against them and risk a coup. He is left with no choice other then to call new elections now. The Speaker of Parliament, who is a very strong figure in Erdogan-led party, has massive nationwide support in Turkey and he only agreed not to run for President if Abdullah Gül or Erdogan himself ran. However, he (Bülent Arınç) is considered by the Army to be even more conservative (the term conservative being relative) than Erdogan. Thus, Erdogan had the option of going ahead with Abdullah Gül and risk a military coup, pick Bülent Arınç instead which would mean a guaranteed military coup, pick a third less “conservative” candidate who would not have wide support of her/his own political party and risk an MP rebellion, or pick the easiest option of calling new elections.

    I said “her/his political party” because there are two candidates that the Army had indirectly indicated that it might accept as President. The first if the current defence minister Vecdi Gönül, and the second is a woman Nimet Çubukçu (who, needless to day, does not wear a headscarf), however, none of these two candidates has the wide support of their political party, the Justice and Development party (AKP).

    Regarding the headscarf, Erdogan’s wife wears it and so do his daughters. In fact, because Erdogan’s daughters cannot attend university unless they remove their headscarfs, Erdogan has opted for sending them to the United States for their higher education. Nonetheless, the wife of the politically most important man in Turkey wears a scarf and so did Abdullah Gül’s wife when he was prime minister. This also implies that the wife of the current foreign minister, the outside “face” of the Turkish Republic, wears a headscarf. Thus, a lot of that symbolism that you speak of has already been “broken”, so to speak.

    The main point here is that there is absolutely nothing to indicate that Erdogan and his political party want to impose any so-called religious values on the rest of the population. On the contrary, the freedom of, say, wearing a particular item of clothing or not shaving is repressed. The world media seems to have no issue with statements coming out of the Turkish Army that talk about the “Islamic roots” of political parties or politicians, and don’t seem to question what precisely is meant by the “Islamic roots” and exactly what sort of risks do they pose. I am left wondering what would be the reaction if the Army said that the “roots”, whatever that means, of a political party or politician are “too liberal” or “too avant-garde.”

    The question that I am trying to raise is why or how come writers and journalists are too happy to label political parties like the one led by Erdogan as “Islamist” or describe them as having their “roots in political Islam,” but not actually elaborate and explain to the reader what is meant by that. Put differently, what makes particular policies of the Erdogan-led party “Islamist”, and what is so dangerous or “wrong” with those policies, so to speak. There is precious little detail that questions the statements coming out of the Army and their allies, i.e. their fears. That is, why isn’t the Army’s line being questioned more strongly?

    I would appreciate if someone could write down and inform me and others what precisely is Erdogan threatening to do, and does that act constitute an “Islamist” policy. What is the Army so worried about? The answers should be very precise and concrete. Saying that the Army is worried about threats of imposing religious values are simply not good enough because no-one has threatened to impose anything on anybody. If, say, a government threatened to impose a ban on white socks in Turkey then the Army could react and defend people’s freedom to wear white socks because of the specific threat, however, there are no such threats that I have heard of or read about.

    Lastly, it is by far more interesting the issue of who within Turkey supports the possible entry into EU. For a while it seemed like almost all groups of the Turkish society supported its entry into EU. The so-called liberals dreamed of free movement of people, no more visas, nonstoppable liberal democracy. The so-called conservatives dreamed of having someone higher up (Brussels) defending their freedom to be who they are – Muslims, wearing a headscarf or having a beard if they choose to do so – if that does not offend or damage others. The so-called poor people dreamt of going to Deutschland and getting that dream job or setting up a business (probably a kebab restaurant). And, the so-called rich people dreamed of selling more because there would be no more any trade barriers within an ever-increasing EU.

    However, this seems to have changed lately. To me, the fanatically anti-religious people are just as bad as the fanatically religious ones. Those devout secularists – the Army and their allies – seem to have lost some interest in the EU precisely because entry into EU might mean that imposing a ban on headscarfs or beards would break the European convention on human rights. It is exactly because of these “fears” – the fear of others being free – that some might actually place “landmines” on the road to EU. Nevertheless, entry in EU would also mean that no government in Turkey could impose any religious values – be they “Islamist” or otherwise.

    I, for one, do not want to stand with and defend only those that have fallen victims of religious fanatics, but also those that have fallen victims of anti-religious fanatics. I have always and will always stand with and defend the freedom of people, as long as their freedom and choices do not affect me or others in a negative way. What people choose to wear or how they shave is none of my business nor should it be the business of any government of Army. If someone denies freedom to others and cites fears then I will always question what precisely their fears are and how real those fears are. In my book, someone’s paranoia should not mean someone else loss of freedom.

    Fidel Pardussi

  7. There seems to be awfully little information available on Turkish politics in the United States. Or maybe the American preference for religious freedom over liberty makes the AKP somewhat appealing.

    At least the AKP banned alcoholic beverages in 62 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. Teachers at public schools have been replaced with religious staff, the government keeps building new mosques and Qu’ran schools that even offer lessons for adults now. The President vetoed against a bill that was intended to outlaw out-of-marriage relationships.

    Even years ago, it could be observed in cities and provinces that were ruled by a ‘conservative’ (rather neo-islamic) government that people’s personal freedom was severely reduced – try for yourself and eat something on the street during Ramadan and observe what happens…

    Admittedly, there is no workable alternative currently, but if AKP gets even more powerful in Turkey, they are absolutely free to redesign the country according to their preferences, which they fully derive from Islamic law and tradition.

  8. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Prof. Shugart's Blog » Turkey, free and indepdendent

  9. Jurisdictions everywhere have laws that amount to criminalizing poor manners. I can’t see that banning public daytime food consumption during Ramadan, in a place where most people observe it, is any different than banning public smoking, drunkenness, urination, nudity, overly loud music, or any other of the other dozens of things that various people around the world find to be poor manners worthy of legal censure. That the manners are rooted in religious sensibilities does not make them cease to be manners.

  10. “At least the AKP banned alcoholic beverages in 62 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. Teachers at public schools have been replaced with religious staff, the government keeps building new mosques and Qu’ran schools that even offer lessons for adults now. The President vetoed against a bill that was intended to outlaw out-of-marriage relationships.”
    Should laugh or cry, which country are you talking about?
    “try for yourself and eat something on the street during Ramadan and observe what happens…”
    Are these sentences fruits of ignorance or false intensions? How much time did you spend in Turkey?

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