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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Turkey's early parliamentary election of 2007

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Turkey will be holding an early parliamentary election this Sunday - three months ahead of schedule - in the wake of an impasse over the election of a new president between the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country's staunchly secular elite.

Turkey's head of state is presently chosen by the country's unicameral Parliament, the Grand National Assembly, and the ruling party wanted to elect Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as president. Despite the fact that Erdogan's government has pursued Turkey's membership in the European Union (EU) and introduced a number of liberal reforms in order to bring Turkish law in line with EU standards, the opposition parties accuse Gul and AKP of having a hidden Islamist agenda that constitutes a threat to the country's strict separation of religion and state - the legacy of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey - and boycotted the presidential election. As a result, the required two-thirds quorum was not attained, and the Constitutional Court subsequently annulled the election. Meanwhile, Turkey's army - which regards itself as the "defender of secularism" - expressed its "concern" regarding the presidential vote. In 1960 and 1980 the military overthrew civilian administrations, and in 1971 and 1997 it pressured democratically elected governments out of office.

However, Prime Minister Erdogan - who has sought to portray his Justice and Development Party as a moderate Islamic political force, similar in outlook to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe - secured parliamentary approval for a package of constitutional amendments that would provide for the election of the president by popular vote for up to two five-year terms (instead of a single seven-year mandate), and for the Grand National Assembly to be chosen every four years, instead of every five. The amendments will be submitted to voters in a referendum expected to be held next October, following a ruling by the Constitutional Court which rejected challenges brought forward by outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the country's main opposition party, the left-wing, secularist Republican People's Party (CHP).

Members of the Grand National Assembly are chosen in multi-member constituencies by a proportional representation (PR) electoral system that has gained notoriety due to an unusually high - and highly controversial - electoral threshold, set at ten percent of the nationwide vote since 1983. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey's 10% threshold was not in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but at the same time noted that "it would be desirable for the threshold complained of to be lowered and/or for corrective counterbalances to be introduced to ensure optimal representation of the various political tendencies."

Elections to the Turkish Grand National Assembly has further information on Turkey's electoral system.

The ten percent threshold - introduced by the 1980-83 military government to prevent a recurrence of the excessive parliamentary fragmentation and resulting governmental instability that characterized Turkish politics for much of the 1970s - has had a mixed record over the years. Following eight years of single-party governments headed by the free market-oriented Motherland Party (ANAP), no party secured an overall majority in the 1991, 1995 and 1999 general elections, and for eleven years the country was ruled by a succession of largely weak, unstable coalition cabinets.

However, the 2002 parliamentary election brought an unprecedented political upheaval: four of Turkey's major parties at the time - the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), ANAP and the right-of-center True Path Party (DYP) - were wiped out when they fell below the threshold, while the recently established AKP, a successor of the Virtue Party and the Welfare Party - previous Islamist parties disbanded by Turkey's Constitutional Court - won a large parliamentary majority with 34.3% of the vote. Besides AKP, only CHP overcame the ten percent barrier and secured parliamentary representation (having previously failed to do so in the 1999 general election); over forty-five percent of the votes were cast in favor of parties which failed to cross the threshold and obtained no seats in the National Assembly, including the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) - the legal vehicle of Kurdish nationalism - which won the largest number of votes in thirteen provinces in south-eastern Turkey.

The ongoing exclusion of pro-Kurdish parties from the Grand National Assembly has been yet another sore point for Turkey's sizable Kurdish population, which is not officially recognized as an ethnic minority. For most of the 20th century, successive Turkish governments sought to forcibly assimilate the Kurds, which were officially designated as "Mountain Turks" or "Eastern Turks", and use of the Kurdish language was strictly prohibited. These restrictions were relaxed in 1991, and under pressure from the EU, broadcasts and education in the Kurdish language were legalized in 2002.

Successive pro-Kurdish parties have had to deal with intense hostility from the authorities, which have repeatedly sought to identify the former with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its successors, which wage a violent campaign to establish an independent Kurdish state. However, this situation is just one manifestation of a widespread perception that equates (or is unable to distinguish between) legitimate dissent and subversion. Despite the adoption of major reforms in recent times, organizations such as Amnesty International remain critical of Turkey's human rights record, and Freedom House continues to classify Turkey as a partly free country.

Under Erdogan's tenure, the Turkish economy has enjoyed several consecutive years of strong growth, and opinion polls show AKP well ahead of its opponents; among the latter, only CHP and MHP appear to be above the minimum ten percent of the vote required to secure parliamentary representation. However, the nationwide threshold does not apply to independents, which are running in record numbers in the election; in fact, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) - the successor of DEHAP - has fielded independent candidates in what could prove to be a successful attempt to circumvent the electoral barrier. Thus, while AKP appears likely to prevail in the election, it is less clear that it will retain an absolute majority in the Grand National Assembly, and Prime Minister Erdogan has announced he will retire from politics if the ruling party is not returned to office as a single-party government.


The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will remain in office after having scored a second landslide victory in the elections to the Grand National Assembly held last July 22.

Definitive results of the election, released by Turkey's Supreme Election Council on Monday, July 30 were as follows:

Justice and Development Party (AKP) - 16,327,291 votes (46.6%), 341 seats
Republican People's Party (CHP) - 7,317,808 votes (20.9%), 112 seats
Nationalist Action Party (MHP) - 5,001,869 votes (14.3%), 70 seats
Independents - 1,835,486 votes (5.2%), 26 seats
Democrat Party (DP) - 1,898,873 votes (5.4%), no seats
Young Party (GP) - 1,064,871 votes (3.0%), no seats
Felicity Party (SP) - 820,289 votes (2.3%), no seats
Others - 783,204 votes (2.2%), no seats

84.2% of the electorate turned out to vote, up from 79.1% in 2002.

The major election winners were AKP, whose share of the vote increased substantially with respect to the 2002 legislative election, and the Nationalist Action Party, which staged a comeback and returned to Parliament after having lost all its seats in the 2002 debacle. Meanwhile, the Republican People's Party - which ran in alliance with the Democratic Left Party (DSP) - barely improved over the combined 20.6% share of the vote won by CHP and DSP in 2002. (Turkey's electoral law forbids electoral coalitions, but political parties get around this restriction by having their candidates stand under the banner of an allied party.)

Despite polling a larger percentage of the vote, both AKP and CHP lost seats to MHP and to twenty-six successful independent candidates. AKP's losses were largely offset by its sizable vote increase and the party retained a reduced but nonetheless substantial parliamentary majority, but CHP suffered heavy seat losses. Twenty of the newly-elected independent deputies are affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) - which successfully circumvented the electoral threshold - and the remaining six independents include notable personalities such as former Motherland Party (ANAP) leader and ex-Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, who won a seat in Rize province (ANAP did not contest the 2007 parliamentary election).

Although the percentage of votes cast for parties that failed to cross the ten percent barrier required to obtain parliamentary representation fell from forty-five percent in 2002 to thirteen percent in 2007, the figure remains high by Western European (but not Eastern European) standards. The main casualty of the electoral threshold was the Democrat Party (DP; formerly the True Path Party), which had fallen just below the threshold in 2002 but lost further ground in the 2007 election.

While AKP won a decisive victory at the polls, the issue that brought about the early election - the designation of a new president - remains unsettled. The Supreme Election Council has scheduled the referendum on constitutional amendments (which among other things would provide for the direct election of the president) for next October 21, but in the meantime Turkey's head of state will have to be chosen by the Grand National Assembly. It is anticipated that the ruling party will renominate Abdullah Gul as its presidential candidate, but the military has made it clear that regardless of the election outcome, they still hold the view that Turkey's next president must be a committed secularist: as General Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff bluntly put it, "the views of the Turkish Armed Forces do not vary from day to day."

Perhaps more importantly, following the election AKP is further behind the two-thirds majority required to elect a new president, which means the ruling party is in no position to impose its candidate of choice. Prime Minister Erdogan has indicated his willingness to compromise on the issue, but insists the candidate must come from his party. Although Erdogan has proven to be a very skillful politician, it remains to be seen if he can reach an agreement with the opposition parties and prevent a showdown with the armed forces.

Turkey elects an Islamist president covers the election of Abdullah Gul as President of Turkey.