Turkey chooses between pluralism and one-man rule in crucial elections

Friday 05/06/2015
Is Turkey heading toward one-man rule?

ISTANBUL - Turkish voters went to the polls Sunday in a bitterly-contested election set to determine whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can tighten his increasingly controversial grip on the country.

The legislative election is taking place under the shadow of violence, after two people were killed and dozens more wounded in an attack on a rally of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on Friday.

Opinion polls predict that the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), co-founded by Erdogan and in power since 2002, will again win the most votes, but its share could be sharply down on the almost 50 percent it gained in 2011 elections.

Erdogan wants the AKP to win a two-thirds majority of seats, which would allow parliament to push through a new constitution to switch Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

This would enshrine the position of Erdogan -- premier from 2003-2014 before becoming president -- as Turkey's number one and transform the office of the presidency which was largely ceremonial until his arrival.

He argues that this would be little different from the system in democracies such as France and Brazil and that changing the current constitution, born out of a 1980 military coup, is long overdue.

Opponents, however, fear it could mark the start of one-man rule, with Erdogan likely to seek another presidential mandate to stay in power to 2024.

"I voted for the AKP in previous elections because they did a good job. But my trust in them has waned," said Murat Sefagil, 42, an Istanbul fruit vendor, saying he would vote for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

But Mehmet Kose, 50, a school janitor said: "We're connected with our hearts to the AKP. I voted for them again this year because I want Turkey to be ruled by a presidential system."

The opposition HDP, expected to come fourth, could scuttle Erdogan's plans if it wins over 10 percent of the vote and surpasses Turkey's notoriously harsh threshold for sending MPs to parliament.

A strong showing from the second-ranked secular CHP and third-placed Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) could even force the AKP to form a coalition to stay in power for the first time since it came to office in 2002.

"Hopefully we will wake up to a new and freer Turkey on June 8," said HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas as he cast his vote in Istanbul.

"I believe that we will hand-in-hand create a future where we will have more freedom."

The attack on the HDP in Diyarbakir, caused by a bomb stuffed with ball bearings, was the latest against the party in the campaign, as it tries to break into mainstream Turkish politics.

Over 400,000 members of the police and gendarmerie have been deployed across Turkey to ensure security, media reports said.

Casting his vote in his home region of Konya, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said one suspect had been arrested over the attack and was being checked for links to militant groups.

The election campaign has been hugely divisive, with Erdogan lashing out at enemies in all directions, including several foreign newspapers like Britain's The Guardian and the New York Times, which he told to "know your place".

Erdogan's heavy involvement in the campaign in favour of the AKP is itself controversial, given that as head of state he is required to keep an equal distance from all parties.

He concentrated his fiercest attacks however for Demirtas, belittling him as a "pretty boy" who is merely a front for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) separatist militants.

Whether the HDP breaks the 10 percent barrier has become the key uncertainty in the election and the party has been seeking to reach out to non-Kurdish voters with its tolerant message.

"I am not Kurdish but I voted for the HDP to have a fairer parliament and make sure the AKP obtains less seats," said Ilker Sorgun, 27, as he cast his vote in Ankara.

The CHP meanwhile has sought to play on the perceived excesses of the ruling party, even accusing Erdogan of having golden toilet seats in his new presidential palace in Ankara.

"The final result is too close to call, as small, last-minute shifts in electoral preferences could make all the difference," Sinan Ulgen and Marc Pierini, visiting scholars at Carnegie Europe, said in a report on the election.