BACKGROUND: The early elections of November 3 were an electoral revolution. The AKP, which the establishment had worked hard to alienate and suppress, won 34.1% of the vote and captured 363 of the parliament's 550 seats. The only other party to pass the 10% threshold to Parliament was the leftist Republican People's Party (CHP), with 19.3% and 179 seats. The political chaos that began with Prime Minister Ecevit's illness in May ended with a very clear electoral purge of the government parties. Ecevit's DSP, the nationalist MHP, and the liberal ANAP all polled between 1,5 and 8,5% of the vote, as did the conservative DYP of former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller. The shockwaves of the electoral earthquake will continue to be felt in the country, with changes of leadership and a major reshuffle of entire parties to be expected. The AKP was formed as a breakaway group from the Islamic-leaning Virtue Party. However, in these elections, it put forward candidates representing the entire spectrum of the Turkish right, ranging from nationalist to liberal to conservative to religious-leaning. The AKP hence marketed itself as a center-right party to the electorate. Among the many factors that explain its victory, Turkey's economic crisis in November 2000 and February 2001 are the most important. The rapidly pauperized workers and functionaries, the army of unemployed (ca. 20%), the small businessmen forced to close shop, and the large groups of people feeling their human rights and freedoms are behind European standards, all went against the status quo and the established parties and put their faith in the AKP. The military and civilian establishment were comforted by the Islamist Saadet Party gathering only 2,5%, and the Kurdish-leaning DEHAP polling 6,1%. Especially DEHAP campaigned very aggressively, but failed to achieve its electoral aims. This indicates that Turkish citizens of Kurdish extraction overwhelmingly chose to seek their future peace and prosperity within the framework of Turkey's unity and harmony.
IMPLICATIONS: As soon as victory was confirmed, AK Party leader Tayyip Erdogan pledged to travel to European capitals even before a government is formed, to achieve Turkey's aim of getting a date for membership negotiations, and to implement whatever remaining reforms are necessary for the EU to give Turkey a date. Given that Turkey's conservative forces have always been more cautious and anxious in the face of liberalizing reforms, the AKP taking the lead in passing and implementing EU reforms is a decisive change in Turkish politics. This also suggests that AKP may be more willing to find a negotiated solution to the Cyprus issue. The AKP victory should not be interpreted as lessening Turkey's commitment to Euro-Atlantic security structures. Instead, the AKP government is likely to remain loyal to Turkey's commitments, to seek to improve relations with the west while also strongly pushing for Turkey's own rights and interests in these relations. Turkey plays a crucial role in security and peacekeeping in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and will not renege on its obligations in these regions. Turkish military forces are present in all three regions, and its military engagement has increased in tandem with U.S. presence there since September 11, 2001. Turkey already runs the Azerbaijani military academy, and is now helping to build and staff military academies in both Georgia and Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, the increase in western aid for the Caucasus and Central Asia will benefit Turkish companies, who will be among the major investors in coming infrastructural and other projects. While the AKP's predecessor, the Welfare Party, kept a distance to Central Asia for ideological reasons, the AKP is likely to support further Turkish involvement in the region. A considerable number of its parliamentarians belong to the nationalist forces in Turkish society. In the Central Anatolian regions of Turkey where the Nationalist MHP won the 1999 elections and where nationalist and pan-Turkic sentiments are strong, the AKP captured 50% of the vote in this election. These voters' preferences are hence likely to keep influencing the AKP's stance. Moreover, the Turkish Armed Forces' interest in this region will remain stable. The Welfare Party's foreign policy during its year in power in 1996-97 was heavily oriented toward building relations with the Muslim world, while neglecting relations with the West. This was one of the main reasons for the Fall of the WP-led government. By contrast, AKP cadres are likely to follow a more balanced policy toward the Middle East. Erdogan has repeatedly stated that Turkey will follow UN resolutions on Iraq. Hence if a Security Council resolution on a military intervention in Iraq is achieved, Turkey will supply the U.S. with bases and logistics. Leading circles in Turkey, whether establishment or AKP, are well aware that a military intervention will further harm an economy already in crisis, and are therefore opposed to it. If, however, a military action takes place with international agreement, Turkey is likely to participate in a manner aiming at minimizing the damages to Turkey from the operation. It is even possible that in the event of the proclamation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, Turkey may militarily occupy Northern Iraq for some time, something that the AKP is likely to support. The AKP's biggest fear, shared with most Turkish circles, is what will happen in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is deposed.
CONCLUSIONS: Based on its electoral program and the public and private statements of its leadership, and contrary to the understanding in the west, the AKP sees itself not as an 'Islamist' party but as a center-right party with considerable respect for conservative values. As long as the AKP sticks to this definition of its identity, it is likely to receive support both from within Turkey and from outside. Most importantly, the AKP is committed to EU membership. As the EU is reluctant to give Turkey a date for negotiations, it may take the AKP's election as a pretext to refuse. Indeed, in determining Turkish-EU relations and whether Turkey will receive a date, the ball is in Europe's court more than in Turkey's. If Turkey gets a date in December, the AKP will find it easier to solve Turkey's economic problems; and a Turkey firmly tied to the west will be a more stable actor in global security affairs. There is no reason to assume that the AKP will not be moving Turkey toward this role.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Kemal Kaya is a visiting scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He is the Head of the Technical Department of the Turkish Parliament, and co-author of Turkey's Elections: Domestic Scenarios and Foreign Policy Implications.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.