Voters will go to the polls in Turkey on Sunday in what may appear to them as a parliamentary election for “more of the same” – more prosperity, more stability, more international influence for this democratic behemoth that straddles Europe and the greater Middle East.
But this election should not be viewed as MOTS. Turkey stands at a political crossroads, though that may not be so obvious.
All indications are that Turks will return the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power, retaining Mr. Erdogan for a third term. Turkey has much to be proud of under the leadership of this charismatic politician and his mildly Islamic political home, the Justice and Development party, or the AKP.
Their governance for nearly a decade has gained Turkey significant economic growth that boosted individual prosperity. Erdogan also pushed through democratic improvements that opened the door to joining the European Union (unfortunately, the membership process has stalled).
After a long history of military coups and regime churn, Turks are finally enjoying political stability – and international clout. Through a foreign policy of “zero problems” on its borders, Erdogan and the AKP used business ties to build good relations with troublesome neighbors such as Syria and Iran.
But change is really the watchword for this vote.
In foreign policy, the landscape is hardly recognizable from a year ago. The neighborhood autocrats with whom Turkey does business face historic, democratic pushback from their youthful populations.
Turkey’s foreign minister has said the right things – for instance, that stability in the region depends on freedom. He has urged Arab leaders to get in front of their populations by initiating reform – otherwise, they won’t survive.
But so far, Ankara seems to believe that it can facilitate change through “zero-problem” sweet talk and persuasion. Dictators dig in when challenged. What about actions that actually exercise Turkey’s regional economic leverage – as either a stick, or an incentive? That could involve short-term risk for Turkey, but may well yield long-term gains.
At home in Turkey, the scene is also shifting. A rift between secularists and Muslim religionists has grown deeper over the years, provoked by AKP initiatives – some of them reasonable, some of them not.
Perhaps more worrisome is that Erdogan, always professing his allegiance to democracy, has also undermined the checks and balances on his government – through pressuring the media and investigating critics.
Erdogan promises a new constitution should voters favor his party. An update is a necessity, given that the present document stems from an era of military control.
But what Erdogan wants would be a disaster. His aim in this election is to win a supermajority in parliament, so that he need not consult with other political parties or take a new constitution to the people for approval.
The issues that a new constitution would resolve are some of the most sensitive in Turkish society: the role of secularism, the place of ethnic minorities, and the degree of regional autonomy. Such change requires broad consensus, not a one-party rubber stamp of approval.
Beyond that, Erdogan says he wants a new constitution to redirect power to the presidency – an office that he would presumably seek. Will Ankara mimic Moscow, where Vladimir Putin has juggled the presidency and the premiership to prolong his rule?
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has held more than 60 percent of the seats in parliament. It is obviously a hugely popular party – and for good reason.
But a democracy also needs a robust opposition. Turkey’s voters should keep this in mind, and not be lulled into thinking that the next term will be just like the last two.