That Turkish voters are poised to return Mr Erdogan to power in the general election on June 12th is thus not surprising. It is, however, worrying. Mr Erdogan is riding sufficiently high in the polls to get quite close to the two-thirds parliamentary majority that he craves because it would allow him unilaterally to rewrite the constitution. That would be bad for Turkey.The Economist has a Turkish-print edition and the endorsement matters. There are already items in the Turkish press that the prime minister is denouncing the magazine, a move that will likely earn him only more scorn. For the story that ran with the op-ed, click here.
This judgment is not based on the canard that a theocracy is being built. Nine years ago Istanbul’s secular establishment fretted about AK’s Islamist roots—and some early squabbles over religious schools and allowing women to wear the Muslim headscarf at university were indeed troubling. But since then the pious Mr Erdogan and his party have been pragmatic. No matter what the army and too many Israelis (and Americans) whisper, there is scant evidence that AK is trying to turn a broadly tolerant Turkey into the next intolerant Iran.
The real worry about the AK party’s untrammelled rule concerns democracy, not religion. Ever since Mr Erdogan won his battles with the army and the judiciary, he has faced few checks or balances. That has freed him to indulge his natural intolerance of criticism and fed his autocratic instincts. Corruption seems to be on the rise. Press freedom is under attack: more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in China. And a worrying number of Mr Erdogan’s critics and enemies, including a hatful of former army officers, are under investigation, in some cases on overblown conspiracy charges.
On top of this, on the campaign trail Mr Erdogan has begun to take a more stridently nationalist tone: he and his party are no longer making serious overtures to the Kurds, Turkey’s biggest and most disgruntled minority. Mr Erdogan has hinted that if he wins a two-thirds majority next week, he will change the constitution to create a powerful French-style presidency, presumably to be occupied by himself. In a country that is already excessively centralised, that would be a mistake.
It would be better if a new AK government were to take a more broadly inclusive approach. Turkey’s constitution does indeed need a makeover, but it should be rewritten in consultation with other political parties and interest groups, and not as an AK project. The best way to make sure this happens would be to push up the vote for the main opposition party, the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). Assuming that two smaller parties also get into the grand national assembly, that should be enough to deny AK its two-thirds majority.
As it happens, the newish CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (nicknamed Gandhi for his ascetic ways), has been a huge improvement on his dinosaur of a predecessor, Deniz Baykal. He has weeded out much of the party’s old guard, shown himself intolerant of corruption and shifted the party away from its instinctive sympathy for the army’s role in politics. Even more remarkably, Mr Kilicdaroglu has been attracting more supporters than Mr Erdogan to election rallies in the mainly Kurdish south-east, where the CHP has long been weak, by talking more openly of giving all of Turkey’s 81 provinces greater autonomy (it probably helps that he is from the Alevi Muslim minority and that he may have Kurdish forebears).
The AK party is all but certain to form the next government. But we would recommend that Turks vote for the CHP. A stronger showing by Mr Kilicdaroglu’s party would both reduce the risks of unilateral changes that would make the constitution worse and give the opposition a fair chance of winning a future election. That would be by far the best guarantee of Turkey’s democracy.
In addition to The Economist, Erdogan has also caught the attention of the New York Times, which, while not endorsing the CHP, expresses many of the same concerns about the prime minister's ironclad rule. From the Times:
Turkey does need a new, more democratic constitution. But if the AKP gains 330 of the 550 seats, it will be able to push through a constitutional draft without support from the opposition and put it straight to a referendum. (If the AKP gained 367 seats, it could even to adopt the constitution in a parliamentary vote.) A “one-party” constitution would lead to further divisions in Turkey’s already-polarized political system. The opposition parties, together representing half of Turkey’s electorate, might well boycott a constitutional process dominated by the AKP.For my own thoughts, along similar lines, see past posts on the AKP's simple majoritarian conception of democracy and burgeoning authoritarian tendencies. What Turkey is faced with should the AKP continue on its current trajectory is illiberal democracy, or perhaps better (worse?) put, electoral authoritarianism.
Even among AKP supporters there might not be much debate: Erdogan has single-handedly struck 220 of the current 334 AKP MPs off the candidates’ list and replaced them with little-known loyalists. In a party that was once proud of its local roots, the top-down sweep has left many members cross.
Many observers suspect that Erdogan’s main objective in the new constitution is to move Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system along French lines. Already, the AKP has amended the current Constitution so that future presidents will no longer be elected by Parliament but by the people. The new constitution would presumably give the presidency bigger powers, commensurate with its popular mandate.
Most Turks expect that Erdogan himself will want to become president when Abdullah Gul’s term expires.
In Turkey’s already highly centralized system, a move toward a presidential system does not look like a good idea. It could lead either to rivalry and paralysis between a strengthened president and a traditionally powerful prime minister, both backed by a popular mandate. Or it could further erode checks and balances and reinforce autocratic tendencies.
I laid much of this out in March 2009 when the AKP first introduced the major constitutional overhaul it pushed through in last September's referendum.