Third One is the Charm: Will AKP's Victory Finally Lead to a New Constitution in Turkey?

As widely predicted, Turkey’s June 12 elections produced yet another landslide victory for the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkish voters once again voted for political continuity and rewarded the AKP, and its leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for growing prosperity and better socio-economic services, particularly in areas such as healthcare and affordable housing. It is only the second time in the history of modern Turkey that a political party has won three consecutive elections, and the first time it did so by increasing its vote after each election. The AKP received 34.28 percent in 2002; 46.58 percent in 2007; and 49.90 percent of the votes this time. Despite such a steady upward trend, AKP seats in the parliament went down after each electoral victory — from 363 seats in 2002, to 341 in 2007, and 326 in 2011. This paradox is due to the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation — a factor that regularly alters the number of political parties gaining seats in the parliament — and the increasing ratio of candidates running as independents in order to bypass this obstacle.

Since the last elections in 2007, Turkey’s domestic political agenda has been primarily focused on the need for a new constitution. Most political analysts and a great part of the political parties agree that Turkey’s Kurdish question and other issues related to good governance and democratization can no longer be addressed by the 1982 Constitution, which was drafted under military rule. Before the June 12 elections, an important part of the guessing game was about whether the AKP could muster a two-thirds supermajority of 367+ out of 550 parliamentary seats. This was the required number to amend or rewrite the constitution unilaterally, without the need for a referendum. With only 326 seats, the AKP fell well short of such supermajority. Perhaps more importantly, the party also fell four seats short of the critical 330+ that would have allowed it to unilaterally amend and rewrite the constitution before presenting it to a referendum. Under the current parliamentary arithmetic, AKP’s constitutional reforms will need some modest level of support from the opposition or independent candidates. This provides a small consolation for Erdogan’s critics concerned about his authoritarian and illiberal proclivities.     

To the disappointment of its supporters, the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) received only 25.9 percent of the votes and 135 seats. Despite this result, the new and more charismatic CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, noted in a celebratory post-election speech that his party significantly increased its votes, compared to the 20.88 percent and 112 seats received in the 2007 elections. The second largest opposition party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) managed to get 13 percent of the votes with 53 seats. This was hardly a victory for MHP compared to the 14.27 percent and 70 seats received in 2007. Yet, the fact that the party managed to pass the 10 percent threshold is, itself, a crucial accomplishment. It cost the AKP the supermajority that Prime Minister Erdogan was actively seeking by aggressively courting nationalist voters during his campaign. Finally, perhaps the most telling result of the election is the number of seats won by MPs from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who ran as independents in order to bypass the 10 percent threshold. The BDP is widely seen by Turkish politicians as the political wing of the PKK. The fact that the party managed to nearly double its seats to 36 MPs shows that Turkey’s Kurdish challenge has now reached a crucial turning point.  

AKP’s Agenda: The Kurdish Question and a New Constitution

Now that elections are over a complex domestic and international agenda awaits Ankara. Despite the dangerous turn the Arab Spring took for Turkey with bloodshed in neighboring Syria and a growing refugee problem on the southern border, the most urgent issue facing the AKP is the Kurdish problem at home. The AKP has been promising a reformist and inclusive brand new constitution since 2009. Yet, somewhat against the spirit of democratic inclusivity, it was also widely known that Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to change Turkey’s political system from its current parliamentary form to a presidential one. Without a supermajority of 376 seats, he now will be unable to pursue such a polarizing agenda. Instead, the AKP will have to focus on constitutional reforms in order to find viable solutions to Turkey’s Kurdish dilemma.  

Addressing domestic Kurdish discontent in the framework of a new constitution will be a daunting challenge for the government. The political aspirations of Turkey’s 15 to 20 million large Kurdish minority (around 20 percent of the total population) reached unprecedented levels in the last few years. To be sure, the PKK insurgency is not as strong as it was in the 1990s. But Kurdish nationalism, as a political force, is alive and well across Turkey. Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and political demands are fueled by a young and increasingly resentful generation of Kurds who are vocal and frustrated not only in Eastern Anatolia but also in Turkey’s large Western cities including Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin, and Adana. The formative experience of this Kurdish generation has been the PKK insurgency that began in the 1980s. Although most Turks and a large part of the international community consider the PKK a terrorist organization, most Turkish Kurds romanticize the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who exerts considerable political influence behind bars. To them, the PKK and Abdullah Ocalan are national symbols that rejected forced assimilation and paid a heavy price for the recognition of the “Kurdish reality.” 

Today, Kurdish political aspirations are thwarted by legal obstacles which are largely the remnants of Turkey’s 1982 Constitution written under military rule. The current situation of increased Kurdish expectations and limited political space for ethnic recognition does not bode well for Turkey. Raised expectations facing strict political restrictions often create a combustible mix. In 2009, in an attempt to address the root causes of the problem, the AKP launched a “democratic opening” process which involved a partial amnesty for PKK fighters. This was a step in the right direction. Yet, soon after the Habur border incident, where former PKK fighters were given a hero’s welcome by the Kurdish population, the opening turned into an impasse. The AKP faced the worst scenario: an angry Turkish majority greatly alarmed by Kurdish audacity.

The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) seemed the main beneficiary of the whole process. Under these circumstances, Prime Minister Erdogan’s democratic instincts reached their natural pragmatic limits. His political discourse took an unmistakably nationalist and intolerant turn vis a vis growing Kurdish demands. Since early 2010 and throughout the election campaign, the Prime Minister tried to woo nationalist voters in an attempt to keep the MHP under 10 percent on June 12th. This strategy has clearly not worked since the MHP received 13 percent of the votes and the AKP lost ground in the Kurdish southeast. Now that elections are over, the most important question is whether the AKP will be able to change course and once again try to address Kurdish demands with the new constitution. Two crucial steps in the drafting of the document will go a long way in diffusing tension: (1) removing ethnic attributes from Turkish citizenship (2) making Turkish “the official” and not “the only recognized” language of Turkey. These constitutional changes can pave the way to other crucial legal reforms such as the right to bilingual education.

A more self-confident AKP could also broaden and deepen its former democratic opening by offering permission to Kurdish towns and villages to revert to their original names and allowing more room for local government and administrative decentralization. The party should know that only a more multicultural and less centralized Turkey will satisfy Kurdish demands. In taking these crucial steps, two factors should help the AKP government to find the necessary courage and vision.  First, the majority of Turkish Kurds no longer supports an ambition for a separate state, nor the use of force by the PKK. According to a poll from January 2011, conducted by Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies, a Turkish research center based in Istanbul: 90,1% of Turkish Kurds do not believe an independent Kurdish state is a solution and 96,5% do not believe acquiring “Federal Rights” will provide a permanent resolution. [1] Second, the idea of increased powers for local government, a main demand of many ethnic Kurds, is now supported by Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s CHP. Under such circumstances the AKP should face no major problems in forging a parliamentary coalition with either the CHP or the BDP to support a new democratization initiative backed by a brand new constitution.  

Foreign Policy Challenges

Foreign policy was conspicuously absent during the election campaign. Neither the AKP nor the CHP bothered to talk about the European Union or the revolutions in the Middle East. This is probably because Turkish public opinion is overall satisfied with the more independent and self-confident route pursued by the AKP government. Yet, Turkey’s approaches to both the Middle East and the European Union urgently need fine tuning. The Arab Spring is rapidly changing the balance of power in the Middle East and causing problems for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero-problems with neighbors” policy. After the emergence of new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the turmoil in Yemen and Bahrain, and civil war in Libya, now Syria is the latest Arab nation facing the rise of a peoples’ movement.  

Until recently, the Syrian-Turkish bilateral relationship was a remarkable story of a journey from enmity to friendship. It was also the corner stone of Turkey’s zero-problems strategy. At a time when a brutal crackdown is taking place in Syria and thousands of Syrian refugees are crossing the border with Turkey, this situation is putting a lot of pressure on Turkey’s shoulders. The events in Syria provide a crucial litmus test for Prime Minister Erdogan in terms of testing his proclaimed commitment to democratization in the region. This is not a matter of idealism versus realpolitik for Turkish foreign policy. Turkey needs to change its “zero problems” policy with Syria not because of its ideals of freedom and democracy in the region. Logic, realism and self-interest should guide Turkey’s changed strategy toward Damascus.

Simply put, the destabilization of Syria is not in Turkey’s national interest. Yet, the path that the Assad regime has taken will achieve just that. It will destabilize Syria and potentially pave the road toward a sectarian civil war in the country. As Syria’s only democratic ally, Turkey has a moral and political responsibility to severely condemn the killing of hundreds of protesters by this brutal regime. At the same time, Turkey seems uniquely placed to lend some friendly advice to Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan has, in fact, significantly raised the tone of his criticism against Bashar Assad. The obvious issue is that Damascus is in no mood to listen. It should not be particularly surprising that when a dictator is faced with regime survival, outside pressure seldom works. As a result, Turkey is slowly discovering the limits of it regional influence and zero-problems policy. In case the refugee crisis with Syria gets out of hand and a much larger influx takes place, Turkey is likely to consider establishing a buffer zone at the border, which may turn into a safe haven for the Syrian opposition. The Syrian official news agency is already blaming Turkey for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. These reports are fabricated but since Turkey is a predominantly Sunni country Turkish public opinion would not look favorably on a minority Alawite regime massacring Sunnis.

When one looks at the larger picture, the Arab spring is a mixed blessing for Turkey.   On the one hand, most Turks enjoy the fact that their country is seen as a democratic model and source of inspiration in the region. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that Turkey, until recently, used to fill a vacuum of strategic leadership in the Arab world. It was the dismal failure of Egyptian leadership in the region that was at the heart of the Arab predicament and the deep admiration of Turkey’s growing soft power. With the Arab Spring and particularly Egypt’s revolution, Cairo is now slowly re-emerging as the most likely candidate to fill the vacuum of strategic leadership in the Arab world. As it slowly finds its footing as a more democratic regime, Egypt, rather than Turkey, will emerge as a more relevant model for the Middle East. Let’s not forget that Turkey is not an Arab country and that Turkey’s political evolution and history is unique.  Thanks to the people movements sweeping the region, the vacuum of strategic leadership is likely to disappear in the near future. The fact that it was Cairo and not Ankara that brokered the deal for Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is a case in point.

The challenge for AKP will be to realize that it now needs to fine tune its role in the Middle East and find areas where it has advantages for strategic leadership. Turkey’s comparative advantage vis a vis Egypt is twofold. First of all, it is the only Muslim country represented in Western institutions such as NATO and the Council of Europe. It is also the only Muslim candidate to the European Union. As such Ankara has a unique advantage as a “Western” country that can speak on behalf of the Islamic world. Yet, to do so effectively the AKP will have to boost its “Western credentials” as a transatlantic partner and a serious candidate for EU membership. Despite the French and German leaderships’ lack of strategic vision, the AKP should realize Turkey still needs to enthusiastically pursue European Union membership for the sake of its own democratic and foreign policy ambitions. As the AKP embarks on its constitutional agenda to solve the Kurdish problem it should remember that Turkey’s EU candidacy has been the engine of past reforms. Moreover, as recently argued by Hugh Pope, if there is one thing that makes Turkey stand out in the troubled Middle East, it is the country’s convergence with Europe.

Turkey’s second comparative advantage stems from its secular and democratic identity. Turkey should try harder to find creative ways to transcend the sectarian and religious divides in the Middle East. The two most polarizing divides in the Middle East are the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian tension. On the Sunni-Shiite divide Ankara is already playing a crucial role that transcends this deeply rooted and polarizing issue. Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to the Shiite holy sites in Najaf and his two hour visit with Iraq’s most important Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Sistani was a first for the leader of a Sunni country. As the prime minister of a secular country and thanks to his own religious credential as a pious Muslim, Erdogan is better placed than any other leader in the Muslim world to speak about the dangers of sectarianism in the region.

Turkey should find a similar strategic vision in transcending its current problems with Israel. A more self-confident and strategically minded Turkey should be part of solutions on the Arab-Israeli front and not exacerbate an already very tense situation. The normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations is in the national interest of both countries. Given the stakes involved, Washington should play a much more active role in brokering a face-saving deal between the two estranged allies. For its part, Ankara should do its best to discourage a new international flotilla at the end of June by taking into account the risk of a repeat of Israeli overreaction and the positive trends in Gaza, such as Israel’s partial lifting of its blockade and the opening of the border with Egypt. The fact that Davutoglu recently spoke against the flotilla was a step in the right direction. There are also some signs that Israel may soften its position vis a vis Ankara after AKP’s landslide electoral victory.

As far as Turkish-American relations are concerned, the result of the elections is not likely to have a major impact. Washington is likely to continue its pressure on Ankara for the normalization of relations with Armenia and Israel. Some positive momentum in the Azeri-Armenian dispute over Nagorno-Karabagh may provide Ankara an excuse to open the border with Armenia. Finally, the Obama administration wants Turkey to give its official approval for NATO missile-defense related radars. Ankara, in return, is likely to demand command and control over the radar system.

In short, a very challenging domestic and international agenda awaits the AKP. The Kurdish question, a new constitution, challenges with Syria and Israel, and the new balance of power in the Middle East after the Arab spring will require a new level of strategic vision and democratic maturity from the AKP leadership. Where and how Prime Minister Erdogan will spend his new political capital remains to be seen. One can only hope that the third one will be the charm and that AKP’s impressive third electoral victory will pave the road for a less polarized country ruled by a first class democratic constitution.  


[1]. Akyürek, Dr. Salih. Pages 37-38.What Do Kurds and Zazas Think? A Look at Common Values and Symbols. Publication no. 26. İstanbul: Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies - Bilgesam Publications, January 2011.