Elections May Put Drag On Turkey's Ruling Party

Turks are voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday. The secular opposition is mainly fighting to keep the ruling party from winning too big a majority so it doesn't have a completely free hand when it comes to rewriting the country's constitution. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with NPR's Peter Kenyon about what's at stake.

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Elections were held in Turkey today. The party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to win a third term in power. The secular opposition is mainly fighting to keep Erdogan's ruling AK Party, or AKP, from winning too large a majority.

NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. He joins us now. Hello, Peter.

PETER KENYON: Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, before 2002 it seemed really unlikely that the AKP Party with its roots in Islam could win in the land of Ataturk, the father of modern secular Turkey. But the tables have completely turned, and many Turks say they don't want to risk returning the secular opposition to power. How do Turks explain this transformation, Peter?

KENYON: Well, there are a couple of big factors. The early fears about the AKP were that it had a secret plan to turn Turkey into an Islamic theocracy. Instead, what Erdogan and his colleagues did was enact a series of political and economic reforms, the kind of things that secular parties had failed to achieve before them.

But probably the biggest thing Erdogan has done is keep his eye on the economy. Many people, when they think of Turkey, think of Istanbul, a city where I'm sitting now. You might even be able to hear the boats going by in the Bosphorus. It's beautiful, historic, but it's not really representative of the average Turk.

He or she lives in the vast Anatolian heartland on the Asia of the Bosphorus. And when those people look at Erdogan what they see is new housing, new highways, health care reform that really works for them. Frankly, most Turks look at other countries, such as the U.S. still struggling from the last downturn, and they say why would we want to change now?

LYDEN: Now, the big issue looming over this election is overhauling the constitution drawn up by the military after a 1980 coup. Now, most Turks agree that a new constitution is badly needed, but the opposition is saying it would be dangerous to give the AKP too free a hand in creating a new one. What's that about?

KENYON: Well, apologies for the math here, but basically if the AKP wins fewer than 330 seats it needs the opposition's help to get the constitution drafted. If it gets between 330 and 367, which seems most likely, then they can draw up the constitution but they still have to make it acceptable to the public, which gets a referendum. If it wins a two-thirds super-majority, however, more than 367 seats, no referendum is needed, and the fear then among Erdogan's critics is that after eight years in power the AKP is arrogant, dismissive of dissent, and they might go too far.

LYDEN: What do we know about the AKP in that regard? Are there worries that it's becoming too powerful?

KENYON: Critics point to a number of warning signs. There's a large number of journalists in jail right now - businessmen, academics, others who are under economic or legal attack. There's also a new proposal for Internet filtering that will allow the government to block websites. They say it's just anti- pornography but they're refusing to say which sites would be blocked.

There's also fear that Erdogan could manipulate the system to hang onto power by turning it into a presidential rather than parliamentary system. That, in other words, could allow him to become president after he's done this final term as prime minister and essentially hang onto power for another decade.

LYDEN: And, Peter, there's been a lot written lately about Turkey's role in the region and its neighbors, Syria, Iran, Iraq. How might another newly reelected AKP change its approach to its neighbors?

KENYON: This will get a lot of attention. Immediately the question is Turkey's southeastern neighbor Syria - thousands of people fleeing across the border from a violent crackdown. There had been very close economic ties between Syria and Turkey, and how that will change after the election or if it will remains very interesting. Beyond that, there may be another Gaza 8 flotilla, relations with Israel will be strained and there's a question of the Arab uprisings.

These are forcing many nations to recalibrate their Mideast policies. How Turkey will manage that will be very closely watched.

LYDEN: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Istanbul. Thank you very much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Jacki.

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