The political success of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sweeping. It is a forgone conclusion that his Justice and Development Party [AKP] will win a third consecutive election in Sunday’s vote. The only drama concerns the size of his victory – and whether it will be big enough to allow the AKP to make dramatic changes to the country’s constitution.
“We are in a hurry,” Erdogan told voters at a campaign rally last weekend, urging them to vote AKP so he can make the changes without the bother of dealing with the opposition. “I don’t have time for that.” If AKP wins two-thirds of the seats in parliament, Erdogan will be able to rewrite freely – without consulting other parties or the public. If he gets less than two-thirds but more than half Erdogan can still rewrite alone but the public would need to approve it in a referendum.
Few Turks, including many opposition supporters, deny that the country needs a new constitution. The current one was written in 1982 under martial law when Turkey was a political and economic basketcase ruled by hardline Kemalist generals. It no longer fits today’s Turkey: a rising regional superpower with a strong and growing economy.
But whether the AKP should be given a free hand to rewrite the constitution is an issue which divides Turks. Since the late 1990s Turkey has gone through a period of steady democratisation, with unelected power centres such as the military, judiciary and state bureaucracy gradually dismantled. It has not been without controversy though. The AKP is an Islamist party, while many of the institutions that have seen their power eroded – most notably the military – are staunchly secularist. And while Turkey has become more democratic, the AKP has displayed some authoritarian tendencies, most notably in its treatment of journalists who criticise the government, several of whom have been arrested.
Analysts in Istanbul say the question now is whether the new constitution will consolidate these newly gained powers in the hands of one man – or build a new democratic system with checks and balances. The danger to Turkey’s democracy even evoked a rare endorsement for the Turkish opposition from The Economist. Despite generous praise for the AKP for doing a good job running the country, the magazine wrote: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.”
At a time when Turkey is playing an increasingly active role in global politics, one that is likely to become more important as the crisis in neighbouring Syria grows, its domestic political challenges tend to be overlooked. Depending on the outcome of Sunday’s election, that may begin to change.