Turkish political parties are preparing for a parliamentary election on June 12 that is likely to spark significant political reforms, including the possibility of a new constitution. In the run-up to these elections, Turkey is experiencing an increasingly acrimonious debate, contentious trials of military officers and Kurdish activists, and the maneuvering of a Supreme Electoral Council that created havoc first by banning a number of independent Kurdish candidates and then reversing its decision. Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, Orhan Kemal Cengiz of the Human Rights Agenda Association, and Carnegie’s Henri J. Barkey discussed Turkey’s political development over the past decade and its implications for the upcoming elections. Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway moderated.

Turkey’s Political Evolution under the Justice and Development Party

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, Turkey has experienced a significant economic, social, and political transformation. 

  • Economic growth: Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey opened its economy, and the resulting increase in trade has propelled strong economic growth. Increased engagement with the world has led to a loss of fear about selling out to outsiders, Knaus noted. He added that socioeconomic changes have also led to greater urbanization and more educational opportunities for women.

  • European Union: Through the accession process, the European Union has pushed for domestic political reforms and played a key role as a democratic opposition to the government, argued Cengiz. In doing so, the EU has filled a void, as the domestic political opposition is not always democratic. The EU accession process has stalled in recent years, yet neither the EU nor Turkey has any incentive to give up on talks, Knaus pointed out. 

  • Human rights: Human rights have improved significantly in the past decade. Turkey continues to have problems with freedom of the press and police violence, but the number of journalists in jail has decreased and torture is no longer systematic, Knaus said. There is still some violence in Kurdish regions, but the situation is dramatically better than ten or fifteen years ago, added Cengiz. Yet Turkey’s judiciary continues to suffer from significant shortcomings because it is understaffed and underfunded. Forty percent of people in Turkish jail are awaiting trial, and half of those are probably innocent, noted Knaus.

  • Tackling taboos: It has become possible to talk about the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish issue much more openly than even five years ago, said Knaus. At a recent demonstration commemorating the Armenian massacres, the police were ordered to protect rather than attack demonstrators. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, Cengiz said. But he added that progress remains to be made; even as police were protecting demonstrators, Erdogan denigrated a statue symbolizing peace between Turkey and Armenia. 

Civil-Military Relations and Transitional Justice

One of the most contentious issues of the AKP’s tenure has been its effort to bring the powerful Turkish military under civilian control and hold military and other officials accountable for human rights abuses and plots against the government. 

  • The military’s worldview: Many sectors of the security forces are still trained to believe that Turkey is surrounded by enemies, both external and internal, and that pro-European Turks, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, are potential threats to the state, said Knaus.

  • Shifting the balance of power: The EU accession process provided the AKP with an opportunity to begin to diminish the prerogatives of the military. Yet the AKP has gone further and the past five years have been particularly crucial in increasing civilian oversight of the military, which previously had the right to independently gather intelligence throughout Turkey and used torture with impunity, Knaus explained.

  • Dealing with past abuses: The Turkish judiciary is ill-equipped to deal with the large number of complex human rights cases that could be brought against officials, said Knaus. While trying everyone involved in coup-plotting or rights abuses would require indicting every general and many politicians, Knaus said, there should still be some way to find justice. 

  • Ergenekon trial: In 2007, Turkey began a case against a large number of prominent military officers, nationalists, and intellectuals accused of forming part of a shadowy network within the Turkish government responsible for political assassinations, coups, and other offenses. This case has been very polarizing, Cengiz explained, and there have been a number of problems in its prosecution. Despite the controversy, the case has marked a real turning point for the country, Cengiz argued. Minorities and intellectuals in Turkey have felt a measurable improvement in the atmosphere since the case began.

Political Contenders

Four main parties will compete for votes in the June elections. 

  • Justice and Development Party (AKP): Erdogan is by far Turkey’s dominant political figure, Barkey explained, and the AKP is headed toward its third parliamentary victory in a row. Yet the party’s legislative bench will look very different in the future, as it has purged many incumbents from its candidate list. The replacements have likely been chosen for their loyalty to Erdogan and his plans for constitutional change, Barkey added.

  • Republican People’s Party (CHP): The CHP, a pro-military party, is the main opposition to the AKP. Under new leadership, it has attempted to reinvent itself by dismissing 78 of 101 incumbents from its party list and running more reformers. Yet it is having difficulty articulating a consistent message and still has people associated with plotting military coups on the party list, Barkey noted.

  • National Action Party (MHP): Turkey’s ultra-nationalist party, the MHP, is campaigning on its opposition to the Kurds and the preservation of the constitution. The MHP may not achieve the ten percent of the vote required to obtain seats in parliament, in which case its seats will be proportionally distributed between the AKP and CHP, something that would benefit the AKP in particular. Yet excluding the MHP from parliament could prove dangerous by increasing the possibility of violence from its more extreme elements, Barkey said.

  • Peace and Democracy Party (BDP): The BDP represents Turkish Kurds and is primarily concerned with constitutional change to address the Kurdish issue, said Barkey. It is running candidates as independents in order to ensure that it will be represented in parliament even if it does not meet the ten percent threshold. The party appears to have moved away from advocating separation from Turkey. 

Prospects for Constitutional Reform

The AKP will win the upcoming elections, the panelists agreed, but the big question is whether it will secure enough votes to change the constitution. The party would need 367 of 550 seats to change the constitution on its own, and 330 seats to draft a constitutional reform proposal for referendum. 

  • Minority rights: The 1982 constitution was imposed by a military junta and is not democratic, said Barkey, so there is a great deal of pressure for a constitutional overhaul. In particular, a political solution to the Kurdish question will require constitutional change and, absent progress on constitutional issues, there could be increased violence and demonstrations in Kurdish regions. 

  • Presidential system: Prime Minister Erdogan hopes that the AKP will gain sufficient seats in the legislature to amend the constitution and create a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, system. This would be a disaster for Turkey, said Cengiz, because Erdogan has authoritarian tendencies and a presidential system would not provide sufficient checks against executive power.