- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

In Turkey’s 2002 elections, only two parties received more than the 10 percent of the vote required to win seats in parliament. This gave the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which elected Recep Tayyip Erdogan prime minister in 2003, a two-thirds majority in Turkey’s first two-party parliament since 1954. Several polls now have AKP lower than its 2002 election performance. If the election were held today, says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, AKP would receive around 25 percent of the vote. Opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), would likely receive around 20 percent each. A three-party parliament is almost certain; a four-party parliament is also quite possible. Even if AKP were to win 30 percent of the vote, it would lose its parliamentary majority, and some form of coalition government would be formed.

To achieve electoral success in Turkey, Mr. Cagaptay said, a party needs two indispensable elements: a well-organized party structure with good grass-roots support, and a charismatic figure with strong name recognition. Turkish politics is largely personality-driven, and Mr. Erdogan, by all accounts a captivating speaker, fits the bill for the AKP. While several of the opposition parties have strong organizational structures, they lack leaders with Mr. Erdogan’s charisma.

The only opposition party to cross over the 10 percent threshold in the 2002 elections was CHP, which is also the best contender to overtake AKP in the Nov. 2007 election. CHP is nationalist, secular and supports government involvement in the private sector — a left-of-center party similar to the British Labor Party before Tony Blair. As the only opposition party with seats in parliament, CHP has also become functionally an anti-AKP party, opposing it on every issue, sometimes irrespective of its own ideology.

MHP is a nationalist party that naturally picks up support as anger at AKP — particularly the perception that AKP is failing to deal with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — grows. The PKK is a particularly difficult issue for Washington and has proved to be one obstacle in restoring the U.S.-Turkey relationship that soured in 2003 when Turkey denied the United States use of its territory during the invasion of Iraq. In the years since, Turkey has been upset by both the emboldening effect that any increased Kurdish autonomy in Iraq will have on Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Washington’s refusal to allow Turkish forces to strike PKK camps located in Northern Iraq. Turkish attitudes toward America have deteriorated accordingly. Although CHP and MHP reflect the strong and widespread anti-American sentiment, both are less vehemently anti-American than Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party.

Opposition to AKP is also widespread in the country’s roughly 50 minority parties. Ali Mufit Gurtuna, like Mr. Erdogan a former mayor of Istanbul, last week told us of his plans to use his strong name recognition and good relations with civil society groups to bring together minority opposition groups in 2007. Mr. Gurtuna, who called for Turkish support of the U.S. action against Iraq, spoke persuasively about the need for real political opposition to AKP. In addition to the PKK, the 2007 election will hinge on corruption and the escalation of nationalist sentiment. AKP came to power with anti-corruption pledges, but it has been losing that reputation in recent years due to scandals involving lower-level party officials.

The problems Turkey has encountered during its European Union accession to some extent reflect negatively on AKP, as many Turks believe the process has not been what the government promised. Turkey believes the EU is treating it unfairly by demanding concessions in Cyprus and recognition of the Armenian genocide, a dark episode in Turkey’s history that the government has never acknowledged. At the same time, many secular Turks are troubled by a shift in the AKP’s position away from secularism and towards Islamist fundamentalism in both its domestic and foreign policy. The result of next year’s Turkish election may well determine whether Turkey remains a friend of the West, or slips deeper into a hostile Islamist Middle East.

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