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2.23.2011 Turkey's election: A Muslim democracy in action

From The Economist

“VOTE for AK. Write Your Own Constitution.” This is the slogan under which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party will launch its campaign for the general election that is to be held on June 12th. On one level, the outcome seems predictable. Opinion polls have consistently suggested that the mild Islamists who came to power in 2002 will bag a third term of single-party rule, with over 40% of the vote.

Rather less predictable is whether AK can win enough seats in the grand assembly (it needs 367 of a total 550) to approve a new constitution on its own. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, insists that the new document will be based on consensus and that it will give Turkey a full-blooded, Western-style democracy. Can he be taken at his word?

In his eight years in power, Mr Erdogan has done more than any of his secular predecessors to move Turkey closer to its coveted goal of full membership of the European Union. Reforms that he rammed through during AK’s first term in office persuaded the EU to open membership negotiations with Turkey in 2005.

Mr Erdogan has also faced down coup threats from the country’s meddlesome generals. He and his party narrowly survived a closure case launched by Turkey’s militantly secular judges in 2008. He has since steadily trimmed the powers of both the army and the judiciary, most recently in a constitutional-reform package that was put to a popular referendum last September. Some 58% of voters approved the reforms, in what was widely seen as a test of Mr Erdogan’s popularity.

Turkey’s economy has survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. It is expected to grow by 5% this year, putting it only just behind China and India. Unemployment is down and the budget has begun the year with a surplus. Violence in the mainly Kurdish south-east has almost stopped; some say this reflects a tacit government deal with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

On the Arab street, Mr Erdogan’s salvoes against Israel over the Palestinians have made him a hero. Turkey’s high-profile diplomacy, its successful economy and its drive for new markets have made it the envy of many Arab leaders. It is little wonder that so many pundits have taken to talking up a “Turkish model” as a way forward for Egypt. It is also no surprise that Mr Erdogan is brimming with confidence.

Yet critics claim that Mr Erdogan’s confidence has curdled into the sort of authoritarianism that, if left unchecked, might transform Turkey into another Russia. Such claims are surely overwrought: Turkish elections are free and fair, and the press is largely unfettered. Yet there is also no question that Mr Erdogan is getting bossier and less tolerant by the day.

In particular, pressure on the media is mounting. Having tamed Turkey’s largest media conglomerate, Dogan, with massive fines for alleged tax fraud, the government is now taking aim at other dissident voices. The latest victim is Oda tv, an internet news portal with a pro-army tilt. This week its founder, Soner Yalcin, was detained along with three fellow hacks for alleged involvement with the so-called Ergenekon gang of generals and like-minded coup-mongers, who are standing trial on charges of seeking to overthrow the government.

Much of Mr Yalcin’s reporting purported to expose inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. His detention came only days after the issue of arrest warrants for some 163 officers (30 of them serving generals) accused of conspiring against AK in a second case. Western diplomats agree that some of the evidence against them looks flimsy, and in some instances may even have been fabricated.

Turkey’s new chief of the general staff, Isik Kosaner, has hardly uttered a peep. This has prompted howls of protest from the main opposition secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). “It turns out that they were a paper tiger and we thought they were an army,” complains Suheyl Batum, a leading CHP man. AK has seized on his outburst as further proof that, despite a change in leadership, the CHP remains a mouthpiece for the generals.

In fact the CHP’s new head, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has struck a refreshingly liberal note. He insists that the army must be accountable to civilians, and has accused the generals of cutting secret deals with Mr Erdogan. Yet this mild-mannered former bureaucrat does not appear to pose much of a threat to AK. Opinion polls show the CHP lagging well behind, with only 25-30% of Turks saying they would vote for the party.

Erdogan v Gul?

Should AK win a big enough majority in June, the new constitution may contain provisions to shift from the present parliamentary system to a presidential one. Mr Erdogan has made no secret of his ambition to replace the incumbent, Abdullah Gul. Yet nobody, Mr Gul included, knows when his term will end. This is because the constitutional changes that allowed him to become president in 2007, despite fierce opposition from the army, also mandated that the new president should be elected by the people and not by parliament; and for a five-year, once-renewable term, instead of the current once-only term of seven years. The Supreme Electoral Board is expected to decide soon whether these new rules apply to Mr Gul or not—in other words, whether he can stay as president until 2014 or only until 2012.

The dream scenario for AK’s enemies is that Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan clash over the presidency, leading to a split in the party. Yet this looks unlikely. Their nightmare is that the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) fails to win the minimum 10% of the vote needed to secure seats in parliament, handing AK a huge majority. That is starting to seem more likely thanks to the uninspiring performance of the tired MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli. An escalation in PKK violence might give him a boost. Would the Kurdish rebels give him this? Not if Mr Erdogan comes up with a better offer for them.