A triumph for Erdogan


HE’S A rare species indeed in Europe these days, a popular prime minister. No surprise then at Turkey’s resounding endorsement of Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday for a third term, and little wonder his Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased its poll share from the 34 per cent garnered in 2002, to 47 in 2007, and now 50 per cent.

It is a remarkable achievement for Erdogan. The former mayor of Istanbul, once jailed by the secular establishment for Islamist agitation, now leads a party that has confounded secularist and military fears to create a harmonious model of coexistence between Islam and democracy that is increasingly admired throughout the region as a post-Arab Spring possibility.

Skilfully using the lever of the stalled EU accession process, he has driven democratisation and a marginalisation of the army that, although far from complete, has transformed Turkey. He is credited also with the country’s booming, though overheating, economy. GDP has tripled under the AKP and per capita income doubled.

Regionally, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has also become a major player, independent of the Nato consensus, its relationships with Syria, Israel and Iran seen as new crucially important points of leverage.

However, the success of opposition parties in crossing a 10 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation means that the AKP’s 326 seats will be just below the 330 needed to call a referendum on the constitution, and less than the 331 of the 550 seats it won in 2007.

That constraint on Erdogan, whose authoritarian instincts are still worrying, is no bad thing. A new constitution to replace that enacted under military rule in 1980 is badly needed, although the PM’s ambitions to turn Turkey into a presidential system – with him at the helm, no doubt – may be a step too far for an opposition united by its suspicions, if not downright hatred, of him. Erdogan’s immediate post-election emphasis on consensus and dialogue with the opposition on the constitution is a welcome recognition of the new reality.

There are other signs too that the traditional, stultifying, mutual intolerance, long a feature of the country’s parties and Islamist-secularist divide, may be beginning to erode. The new leader of the main secularist opposition Republican People’s Party, with its best result in more than 30 years (25.9 per cent), has made it more liberal, much less reflexively opposed to national and individual rights, and more pro-European. Some see its “post-Kemalist” evolution as akin to the AKP’s “post-Islamist” embrace of democratic values. Perhaps there is now room for a new political dialogue.

The increased representation of the pro-Kurdish BDP may also make it easier for Erdogan to incorporate concessions to Kurdish autonomy in a new constitution.

Immediately, however, there is no resting on laurels. Erdogan faces a huge challenge from Syria which has pushed 7,000 refugees over the border. He has rightly broken with Damascus, describing its attack on its own people as “savage”, and has thrown his weight against his neighbour at the UN Security Council.