Friday, June 10, 2011

Turkish Elections 2011: The Blog View

With the Turkish elections set for Sunday, I've asked Aengus Collins, the man behind the very intelligent and informative "Istanbul Notes" blog to answer some questions about the vote's significance. His answers are posted below. In return, he sent me a series of questions about the election, and has posted my answers over on his blog. You can find those answers here.

1. Although this election's results have been more or less preordained, how significant is this year's parliamentary election in Turkey? What's at stake?

One of the things that makes this election potentially very significant is the simple fact that we're able to talk about its result as if it were almost a foregone conclusion. Nine years since the AKP first came to power, the chances of it being replaced by an alternative government are basically nil. In part that reflects the ineffectiveness of the political opposition, but it's also a reflection of the AKP's ruthless efficiency at consolidating its grip on power during its period in office. The AKP is now the natural party of government in Turkey. That won't always be the case, and there are tentative signs of progress within the CHP, but for the moment the AKP is the only game in town when it comes to winning elections.

That kind of electoral dominance is always a worry, because a prerequisite of healthy democratic politics is the realistic prospect of power changing hands. But the AKP's predominance takes on new significance in Sunday's election because of what's likely to follow in subsequent months and years. The most obvious consideration is the promised drafting of a new constitution. Ideally this would be thrashed out between the various parties and groupings that make up Turkey's deeply polarised public sphere. Instead, depending on the election result it's possible that AKP will get to write the constitution unilaterally. In a country that's not known for its traditions of political self-restraint this would be an unambiguously negative development.

In more general terms, there's a growing sense that years of uninterrupted success have started to go to the head of the AKP and of the prime minister, Mr Erdogan, in particular. The party's second term in office has been characterised by a prime ministerial swagger that has become uglier as the years have ticked by. There is a risk that this will simply be exacerbated once the party wins its third term. Of particular concern are persistent suggestions that Mr Erdogan hankers after a presidential system. This would formalise his personal dominance of the political scene. Again, this would be an unambiguously negative development. Countries with patchy democratic histories fare better with parliamentary institutions. Presidential systems offer too much leeway to leaders who wish to centralise power and sidestep as many checks and balances as possible.

2. If you look back at the last few years of AKP rule, what do you think a victory in these elections means for the democratization process in Turkey and the AKP's future role in it?

I think it's important to clarify what we mean by Turkey's democratisation process, because in a sense there are two of them. First, there's the actual, objective evolution of the country's democratic institutions and practices. I'm not sure that an AKP victory would make a huge difference to that process. It is certainly true that the government has been playing increasingly fast and loose with some key democratic principles, notably the separation of powers and the freedom of the press. This is of real concern, and one has to worry that more of the same would ensue if the AKP wins again. But if we take a step back and look at the broader sweep of events, these current failings don't necessarily represent a massive break with Turkey's deeply imperfect democratic traditions. Unfortunately, democratic abuses are nothing new here.

What is new, however, is the context in which these abuses are occurring. And this is where we come to the second democratisation process. This is a different beast entirely, reflecting not what's actually happening on the ground, but the way in which what's happening is spun to the electorate. Since 2007/08, the AKP seems to have twigged that in a country with a history like Turkey's, the rhetoric of democracy is a potent electoral tool. Since then, the party has relentlessly positioned itself as a democratising force. Given the AKP failings mentioned above, this has been a breathtakingly cynical exercise. But it has worked. In last September's constitutional referendum, the government basically managed to recast the poll as a choice between AKP democracy and the coup-mongering of the party's opponents. This would be laughable in its crudeness if it hadn't succeeded in playing a part in rewriting elements of the constitution.

It's on this second democratisation process, the spin-heavy AKP one, that I'd be more worried following Sunday's election. Because there must be a strong likelihood that the strategy that worked in September's referendum will be rolled out again in defence of the new constitution that will be drafted in the months ahead. Which leaves us with the risk that the AKP will write a constitution that serves its own interests and then sell it to the electorate as a democratic watershed for the country. The unfortunate truth is that the Turkish electorate may not be sufficiently democratically engaged to see through that kind of ruse. And more worrying still is the fact that the AKP's political opponents don't appear to have realised yet that they need to start contesting the AKP's colonisation of democratic rhetoric. Until that happens, the AKP will remain the driving force in Turkey's ambiguous process of democratisation.

3. It has been frequently said that Turkey's main political problem has been the lack of a credible opposition. Did Turkey overcome that problem in this campaign? How would you rate the CHP's performance, in particular?

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but Turkish politics seems to have no such qualms -- it is truly remarkable that it has taken so long for signs of life to stir in the opposition. The lack of a credible opposition has had a debilitating effect on Turkish public life since the AKP came to power. Granted, there are institutional factors that tend to militate against change -- for example, the ten per cent electoral threshold is a major barrier to entry for new and smaller political parties. But there is really no excuse for the shamefully slow progress the CHP in particular has made.

It's difficult to know how to gauge the campaign performance of the CHP under Kemal Kilicdaroglu. If we compare Mr Kilicdaroglu's CHP to that of his predecessor, Deniz Baykal, then the party has at least lifted itself off the floor. Jettisoning the incapable Mr Baykal was always going to be a necessary condition for competing with the AKP. But it's not a sufficient condition, and the CHP has yet to produce an electoral platform that might form the basis of a really serious push for power. In that sense, the party continues to disappoint. It has not found a way to encourage enough semi-attached voters to peel away from the AKP and vote for a new government.

The process of rebuilding the CHP will take time. This election was always going to be too soon for Mr Kilicdaroglu to turn his party around. We should cut him some slack -- this campaign, like last September's referendum campaign, should give CHP supporters grounds for (very) cautious optimism. It is hard to conceive of Mr Kilicdaroglu ever becoming Turkey's leader, but he appears to grasp that the CHP needs to change very significantly. Despite a worrying lack of decisiveness, Mr Kilicadaroglu has made interesting noises on key litmus test issues like the Kurdish and headscarf questions. He has also wisely invested time and political capital trying to spread the CHP's reach into regions where it has traditionally been weak. These developments look like the long-overdue stirrings of a party that understands the need to broaden its appeal out to a potentially election-winning constituency rather than staying in the comfort zone of core-vote strategising.

4. At a time when Turkey is being vaunted by some as a model for democracy in the Middle East, but is simultaneously coming under increasing criticism for its failures vis a vis EU democratic norms, what does this election tell us about the quality of democracy in Turkey?

There's been an interesting shift recently in the backdrop against which Turkish democracy gets assessed, with the European Union fading and the nascent democratic movements of the Middle East moving to the fore. To a large extent this shift is down to analytical laziness, with commentators following the depressingly usual pattern of hitching Turkey to whatever bandwagon is flavour of the month. But there is some substance to it, and it has the potential to affect Turkey's democratic development in real ways.

To my mind, the diminution of the EU's soft power in relation to democracy in Turkey is significant and alarming. The EU bears much of the responsibility for the deterioration in relations -- through its strategic short-sightedness (for example, on Cyprus's accession), more recently through its much more understandable inward-looking focus on preventing a meltdown of the euro zone's monetary union.

But this stepping back by the EU has been greeted by something close to hubris on the Turkish side. All too often one hears the view trotted out that the EU needs Turkey more than vice versa, and that the country might be better off on its own. Frequently, this assessment rests on nothing more solid than a lazy comparison of current headline GDP growth rates. In terms of what Turkish democracy needs, this complacency in relation to the EU is wildly off the mark. For all the problems of the EU-Turkey relationship, it has been one that has constantly pushed Turkey to improve itself.

The same can't be said of this new 'democratic model' narrative that has arisen in response to the Arab spring. On the contrary, there's risk is that it will encourage a sense of complacency on the Turkish side by allowing the country to consider itself a democratic leader rather than a laggard as it has always been in the EU context. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

The reality is that Turkey's democracy remains deeply deficient by European standards. One can disagree strongly with many aspects of the EU's conduct towards Turkey, but it would be a real pity if the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. Being anchored in the European democratic mainstream should be of the highest strategic priority for Turkey's leaders. It would be a real worry if they take their eyes of that prize for any significant length of time.

5. Everyone agrees Turkey needs a new constitution, but is simply changing the constitution enough? What do you think needs to accompany the constitution writing process in order to improve the quality of democracy in Turkey?

No, a constitution alone isn't enough. Even the most democratic of constitutions can't sustain a healthy democracy alone. It's just one element in a constellation of factors that needs to be present. Unfortunately, Turkey has already fallen at the first hurdle by paying too little attention so far to the mechanics of drafting the new constitution. Ideally, a broad cross-section of society should be given this task, both to ensure that no significant interests are excluded from the deliberations, and, to lend society-wide legitimacy to the resulting document. In Turkey however, it's not yet clear how the new constitution will be drafted. It seems likely that the process will involve only the small subset of political parties that make it over the undemocratic ten per cent threshold into parliament. It is even possible that the process will only involve the AKP.

So even before it has begun, we can mark down this constitution-drafting process as a missed opportunity.

Not that a well-crafted and legitimate constitution would be enough either. Creating a healthy democracy means ensuring that the democratic principles set down in a constitution are faithfully, consistently and forcefully implemented and defended. At a minimum, that requires effective legislators as well as a commitment to uphold the rule of law. But neither of these can be relied upon in Turkey. My favourite example from the current constitution is its declaration of gender equality. To say that implementation of this provision hasn't had the full weight of the state behind it would be an understatement of the highest order.

So until Turkey's politicians internalise some key democratic norms, we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for major democratic step changes in the country, regardless of what ends up going in the new constitution. The country may have most of the electoral basics down, but there's a steep learning curve ahead in terms of trying to bed down a more sophisticated democratic culture. Ultimately, it will require real political vision and leadership to move Turkey's democracy forward. That kind of leadership doesn't appear to be on offer in Sunday's election.


Christy said...

Top notch stuff. You guys rock

Sluggh said...

Great conversation. I learned a lot. Thanks.