Elec­tion could set Turkey’s path

Will the demo­cratic na­tion slide fur­ther to­ward an au­toc­racy?

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Glen John­son and Pa­trick J. McDon­nell pa­trick.mcdon­nell @la­times.com Twit­ter: @mcd­neville Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent John­son re­ported from Istanbul and Times staff writer McDon­nell from Beirut.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turk­ish vot­ers go to the polls Sun­day in the cul­mi­na­tion of an ac­ri­mo­nious elec­tion cam­paign pit­ting a frac­tious op­po­si­tion against the long­dom­i­nant rul­ing party and the coun­try’s most di­vi­sive fig­ure: Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

The par­lia­men­tary vote, an­a­lysts say, could de­ter­mine whether this dy­namic na­tion of 80 mil­lion for­ti­fies its vi­brant democ­racy or slides fur­ther to­ward au­to­cratic rule dom­i­nated by Er­do­gan, a charis­matic leader who in­spires fierce loy­alty among sup­port­ers and re­vul­sion from crit­ics.

The pres­i­dent has called on the elec­torate to give his rul­ing Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment party a su­per­ma­jor­ity in the par­lia­ment, which would fa­cil­i­tate con­sti­tu­tional changes bol­ster­ing his power as pres­i­dent.

How­ever, polls have sug­gested that the party will gar­ner 42% to 45% of the vote, which would be a sig­nif­i­cant re­ver­sal of for­tune from the nearly 50% it took in the 2011 gen­eral elec­tion. A re­cent eco­nomic slow­down and in­crease in un­em­ploy­ment have un­nerved many vot­ers.

The elec­tion has been marred by vi­o­lence, as ten­sion and po­lar­iza­tion sweep Turkey. On Fri­day, an ex­plo­sion at a fi­nal rally of the Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Party killed two sup­port­ers and wounded 100 in south­east­ern Di­yarbakir, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal news ac­counts.

The prospect of di­min­ished sup­port for Er­do­gan has raised hope among op­po­si­tion blocs, in­clud­ing the up­start Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party, or HDP, which has en­deav­ored to ex­pand its base be­yond the na­tion’s Kur­dish mi­nor­ity. The left­wing party aims to cap­ture the votes of lib­er­als who have grown dis­il­lu­sioned with both Er­do­gan and tra­di­tional par­ties, such as the cen­ter-left Repub­li­can Peo­ple’s Party, the main op­po­si­tion bloc.

“We have to make a new start by putting peo­ple at the heart of the sys­tem,” Se­la­hat­tin Demir­tas, HDP leader and hu­man rights lawyer, said in April.

Er­do­gan has de­manded for months that his sup­port base de­liver a re­sound­ing victory for the con­ser­va­tive rul­ing party with Is­lamist roots. The party has ruled Turkey since 2002, pre­sid­ing over a pe­riod of rapid eco­nomic ex­pan­sion that also saw Er­do­gan in­crease the pro­file of Is­lam in a repub­lic long torn be­tween Is­lamic roots and secular present.

If the party se­cures 330 seats in Turkey’s 550-seat par­lia­ment, crit­ics say, Er­do­gan can re­write the con­sti­tu­tion and has­ten the na­tion’s move to­ward au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. A su­per­ma­jor­ity of 367 seats would al­low him to make the change with­out a ref­er­en­dum.

“He is es­tab­lish­ing a sys­tem of per­sonal rule,” said Er­gun Ozbudun of Istanbul Se­hir Uni­ver­sity, a lead­ing con­sti­tu­tional law scholar. “What he de­sires is noth­ing like the U.S. sys­tem, as he does not care for checks and bal­ances.... It is a sys­tem which we can no longer call demo­cratic.”

But the pres­i­dent’s de­fend­ers deny any drift to­ward one-man, one-party rule and note that the Er­do­gan years have brought un­prece­dented pros­per­ity to Turkey. Er­do­gan him­self says the con­sti­tu­tional changes would spur growth and Turkey’s as­cen­sion as a global power.

“Er­do­gan is like the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra,” said Mustafa Yildiz, 64, a civil ser­vant and sup­porter strolling re­cently out­side Ankara’s Ko­catepe mosque. “The pres­i­den­tial sys­tem will cre­ate har­mony in Turk­ish pol­i­tics.”

Er­do­gan has bris­tled dur­ing mass ral­lies, as­sail­ing op­po­si­tion move­ments as part of “the Ar­me­nian lobby, ho­mo­sex­u­als … rep­re­sen­ta­tives of sedi­tion.” He has re­peat­edly re­jected al­le­ga­tions that Ot­toman-era Turkey com­mit­ted geno­cide against the na­tion’s Ar­me­nian mi­nor­ity a cen­tury ago.

Er­do­gan’s bel­li­cose cam­paign rhetoric has out­raged op­po­si­tion lead­ers, who note that the con­sti­tu­tion re­quires the pres­i­dent be non­par­ti­san and above party pol­i­tics. Er­do­gan stepped down last year as party leader to run for pres­i­dent, re­ceiv­ing 52% of the vote. But he has hardly re­mained above the par­ti­san fray.

“Er­do­gan is not a pres­i­dent who could stay pas­sive,” noted Huseyin Bagci, head of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions at Mid­dle East Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­sity in Ankara. “The prob­lem for him is the con­sti­tu­tion is not ‘his’ con­sti­tu­tion. ”In this elec­tion, Prime Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu was sup­posed to be the public face of the rul­ing party. But he lacks Er­do­gan’s charisma, so the pres­i­dent has hit the cam­paign trail with gusto.

But Er­do­gan’s march to­ward a more pow­er­ful pres­i­dency could be thwarted if the HDP man­ages to cap­ture more than 10% of the vote, the thresh­old needed to en­ter the par­lia­ment. That would give the group a sub­stan­tial bloc.

The left-wing party, founded in 2012, has run an up­beat cam­paign. Half of the HDP’s can­di­dates are women, and re­li­gious fig­ures and gay can­di­dates are also in the bal­lots.

“I like their speeches, that they don’t dis­crim­i­nate against any­one,” 40-year-old Emine Tunc, sit­ting in a bil­liard hall in the pre­dom­i­nantly Kur­dish Istanbul neigh­bor­hood of Tar­labasi, said of the HDP. The rul­ing party “will help the Syr­i­ans, but when it comes to us, they do noth­ing.”

The HDP strat­egy is a gam­ble, how­ever. If the Kur­dish-linked bloc’s vote drops be­low that wa­ter­shed mark, the Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment Party prob­a­bly will ab­sorb most of those votes and move closer to se­cur­ing the large ma­jor­ity it needs to push through con­sti­tu­tional changes.

Yet to his sup­port­ers, Er­do­gan can do lit­tle wrong.

Stand­ing in his spice store in Istanbul’s con­ser­va­tive Fatih dis­trict’s Egyptian mar­ket — a rul­ing party strong­hold — Savas Ci­nar, his beard fash­ioned in the style fa­vored by Er­do­gan’s pi­ous sup­port­ers, rat­tles off a list of the party’s achieve­ments, in­clud­ing gi­ant con­struc­tion projects and the re­scind­ing of a gov­ern­ment ban on women wear­ing Mus­lim head scarves at uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ment of­fices.

“Be­fore Er­do­gan, we Mus­lims had no life,” Ci­nar said. “Sol­diers used to come to our Ko­ran recitals and ha­rass us. Now we are a global power.”

Kay­han Ozer Pres­i­den­tial Press Off ice

PRES­I­DENT RE­CEP TAYYIP ER­DO­GAN greets sup­port­ers at a party rally in Eskise­hir, Turkey. He wants a par­lia­men­tary su­per­ma­jor­ity to ease chang­ing of the con­sti­tu­tion to con­sol­i­date his power.

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