Erdogan’s Dreams

8 June 2011

Erdogan’s Dreams

By Gwynne Dyer

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is heading for its third election victory in a row on 12 June, and it is starting to suffer delusions of grandeur. Its election manifesto focuses not on the near future but on the year 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the Turkish Republic – as if it were confident of staying in power for the next dozen years. And its vision of Turkey’s future in 2023 is bold.

The party’s leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, has set a target of making Turkey one of the word’s ten largest economies by 2023. (The country currently has only the seventeenth biggest economy in the world.) To leapfrog all the countries in between, Turkey would have to triple its Gross Domestic Product over the next twelve years.

Average Turkish per capita income by 2023, AKP’s manifesto predicts, will be $25,000 a year, not far below that of Spain today. There are mega-projects, too: a Turkish space programme, an aviation industry that designs and builds aircraft from scratch, even a 50-km. (30-mi.) canal west of Istanbul that bypasses the crowded Bosphorus strait and connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

To be fair, the AKP leader’s dreams have some basis in reality. Per capita income in Turkey is already about the same as in Russia or Romania, and it’s growing a lot faster. Even if the country is unlikely to reach the goals Erdogan has set by 2023, it will probably be more than half-way there by then. And it seems that Prime Minister Erdogan plans to be around to collect the credit.

The AKP manifesto also promises a new constitution, and almost everybody assumes that this would create a powerful executive presidency on the French model. (The office is currently largely ceremonial.) Then Erdogan, who says he will step down as party leader after this parliament, would run for president instead.

Turkish presidents are elected for up to two five-year terms, so if Erdogan won the new-style presidency in 2015 and retained his popularity, he would stand a fair chance of still being in office to preside over the anniversary celebrations in 2023. He’ll only be 69 then, so why not?

But to change the constitution, Erdogan doesn’t just have to win this month’s election. That is pretty much guaranteed: the polls currently give the AKP almost fifty percent of the votes in what is essentially a three-horse race. He actually has to win over two-thirds of the seats in parliament, which is a lot trickier, given Turkey’s unpredictable electoral system.

The key element in that system is that no party gets representation in parliament unless it wins at least 10 percent of the vote. Two parties, the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), regularly get many more votes than that. The third horse in the race, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), sometimes clears the 10 percent threshold – and sometimes it doesn’t.

In 2002, the MHP got less than 10 percent of the vote, and so no seats in parliament. That allowed the AKP (centre-right and moderately Islamic) to win 66 percent of the seats in parliament although it only got 34 percent of the popular vote. All the other seats went to the CHP (left-of-centre and militantly secular).

Things were different in 2007. The MHP got 14.5 percent of the vote, and a comparable share of the 550 seats in parliament. The AKP raised its share of the popular vote to 47 percent, but it ended up with only 60 percent of the seats, well below that critical two-thirds majority. So it matters a great deal to Erdogan whether the MHP manages to stay in parliament after this election.

Two weeks ago it looked as if his dearest wish had been granted. A very slick video appeared on the internet showing ten – count them, ten – MHP members of parliament in deeply compromising circumstances with ladies who were not their wives. They all resigned, and most people assumed that the MHP, a conservative, “family values” sort of party, would be punished by the voters and crash out of parliament again.

Wrong. The last opinion poll in Turkey was published on the first of this month, and it showed the MHP still bouncing along with 11 percent of the vote. Maybe Turkish conservatives are less prudish than we thought. In which case Erdogan will not get his two-thirds majority and probably won’t be able to change the constitution.

Does this matter? Perhaps not, for he is still going to win the election, and he can always change his mind about retiring as the leader of the AKP after this parliament. But a lot of Turks still fear that he has a secret agenda to turn the country into an Islamic state. They are probably wrong, but they will sleep better if Erdogan doesn’t get to re-write the constitution.

In fact, maybe that’s why the MHP’s number are holding up so well despite the scandal. Turks know all about tactical voting.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“Average…Mediterranean”; and “Turkish…not”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.