New realities: Recent years have brought a remarkable political transformation

Reforms to bring the country more into line with EU standards, driven by a widespread desire to make Turkey a more democratic and free-market-based economy, have gone hand-in-hand with increased government popularity, stability and economic growth. Indeed, there is a great new confidence in Turkish politics and society. This has also led to a greater assertiveness in the international field, where many now see the country as a positive role model for development throughout the Muslim world.

The country still faces some long-standing challenges, however. The Kurdish issue continues to haunt political life, stunting development of the south-east in particular. The tension between a more socially conservative and a more secular outlook also provides the framework for much debate in public and private life. Various human rights issues are also a concern, as is the treatment of journalists and the perceived state censorship of criticism (see Media & Advertising chapter). Meanwhile, the Arab Spring presents challenges for Turkey’s relations with its neighbours – in particular with Syria. Efforts to end long-standing disputes with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora have made slow progress.

EU: Progress toward EU accession has also faltered. Turkey’s application for membership was filed in 1987. It joined the Customs Union in 1995, yet did not begin full membership negotiations until 2005. These involve Turkey completing the 35 chapters of EU law, known as aquis. As of December 2011, negotiations had been opened on 13 chapters, one of which had been provisionally closed. Eight chapters could not be opened, as they are related to Turkey’s relations with the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member that Turkey does not recognise. The deadlock, combined with growing hostility from some European governments toward Turkish membership, continues to stymie progress on EU accession (see analysis).

Nonetheless, as it moves forward with its third term in power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can look back on a series of significant achievements.

RULING BODIES: Turkey is a democratic republic, with a president as head of state and a government led by a prime minister. It has a single-chamber parliament, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), with a multiparty system in operation.

The political system is governed by the constitution, the current version of which was originally drawn up under military rule, in 1982. Since then, the constitution has been extensively amended, with a new version also now under debate.

The current president, Abdullah Gül, was elected to the office by parliament in 2007. At that time, this was the method for electing the head of state, as outlined in the 1982 constitution. Yet an amendment that same year then introduced direct nationwide elections for the office. Under the old constitution, presidents were elected for a single, seven-year term, with this changed to a maximum of two five-year terms by the 2007 amendment. This constitutional change threw a question mark over Abdullah Gül’s rights to re-election, with the possibility that 2012 might see the first direct presidential vote – five years after Gül took office. Instead, in January 2012 parliament voted to allow the incumbent his full, seven-year term, with the first direct elections now scheduled for 2014 – subject to a legal challenge to this decision made by the opposition.

The president’s powers are not purely ceremonial. As commander-in-chief, he or she can appoint the chief of the general staff and presides over meetings of the National Security Council – the key body bringing together politicians and military leaders. The president also has the power of appointment in key institutions inside the judiciary, the Higher Education Council, the State Supervisory Council and the universities. These areas have all traditionally been areas of political controversy. While the president may not initiate legislation, the office holder does hold veto powers over bills passed by the TBMM, which if exercised, returns them for further debate. If the bill is then passed again without any changes, the president is obliged to pass it, though he or she may also refer it to the Constitutional Court or put it to referendum, if still opposing the bill.

GRAND NATIONAL ASSEMBLY: The TBMM is thus the supreme legislature, with its single chamber comprising 550 deputies elected for four-year terms via a system of proportional representation, known as the D’Hondt method. For this, the country is divided into 85 electoral districts. There is also a national party threshold of 10%, meaning votes cast for parties receiving less than 10% of the national vote have their ballots re-cast for the next preference.

This has tended to work against minority and regionally based parties. There have been repeated calls from the EU and electoral reformers in Turkey for the threshold to be lowered in any future constitutional amendments. However, the rules also allow for independent candidates to be elected, provided they garner more than 10% of the vote in their province. This enabled the supporters of minority parties, such as the largely Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to run as independents in 2011 and reform as a party group once elected to office. It is at the TBMM that the future prime minister must win a vote of confidence to form a government. He or she is then appointed by the president.

In the past, when parliament was deeply divided among many parties, this usually meant a coalition would have to be formed before an administration could take office. Since the AKP victory in 2002, however, the prime minister has been able to count on a clear majority in the TBMM from his own party alone. The president appoints the Council of Ministers, or cabinet, the members of which do not have to be deputies, but usually are. The 61st cabinet, appointed in July 2011, consisted of the prime minister, four deputy prime ministers and 21 ministers.

The government initiates legislation in the form of bills that go before a number of committees – there were 17 specialised committees in 2011 – and then before the TBMM for voting. Bills go to the president for final ratification. Deputies and opposition parties may also attempt to bring their own bills before committee and the TBMM.

ELECTION RESULTS: The three last general elections for the TBMM, in 2002, 2007 and 2011, saw victories for the AKP in each. The party won 363 seats, with 34.28% of the vote in 2002, 341 seats and 46.66% of the votes in 2007, and 327 seats with 49.83% of the votes in 2011 – illustrating growing popular support, yet also showing the vagaries of the proportional electoral system.

In 2002 the only other party to win representation was the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s oldest party. Formed in 1923 by the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, this won 178 seats in 2002, with 19.38% of the votes. The 2002 election was a watershed, in that it saw the demise of a string of parties that had dominated Turkish politics in the 1990s – the True Path Party, the Motherland Party and the Democratic Left Party. These all failed to gain a single seat and have yet to recover from this defeat, failing again to win any in 2007 or 2011.

After the 2007 election the CHP was joined in opposition by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which won 71 seats with 14.29% of the vote. The CHP itself won 112 seats with 20.85% of the vote, while the “independents” won 26 seats, 22 of which later became the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). This was banned in 2009, after the courts found links between it and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – an armed group branded “terrorist” by Turkey, the US and EU.

In 2011 the CHP won 135 seats with 25.98% of the votes, the MHP 53 seats with 13.01% of the votes and the independents 35 seats, all of which became the ethnic-Kurdish BDP’s representation.

Thus a pattern appears in which parliament – and the country as a whole – divides roughly half behind the government and half against, with the opposition split between left-leaning nationalists in the CHP, right-leaning nationalists in the MHP and minority independents like those comprising the BDP, or its previous incarnations. The CHP, led by Kemal K›l›çdaroğlu, and MHP, led by Devlet Bahçeli, have also often found themselves cast in the role of defenders of an older, more statist Turkey, in the face of the pro-free-market policies of the AKP.

The divide has also often been characterised as secular versus religious, given the Islamist background of the AKP, with both Erdoğan and Gül having been members of the ill-fated 1995-97 Welfare Party government, which was ousted by the military and its allies in what became known as the soft coup, or the February 28 process (see analysis).

Yet many of the AKP leaders are anxious to describe their party as a conservative democratic group, akin to the Christian Democrats in Germany. Clearly the AKP is a broad movement, encompassing both liberal and more pious opinion, with this also a source of speculation over disputes within the ranks. Nonetheless, in early 2012, the party seemed unified behind its current leadership, with little to challenge it within the walls of the TBMM.

JUDICIAL POWERS: The Turkish penal code is based on those of Switzerland and Italy, with separate judicial, military and administrative courts. Each has its own courts of first instance and appellate courts, with the court of jurisdictional disputes charged with resolving any disagreement over which system should try a case. The supreme courts of the judicial system are the Constitutional Court and the Court of Appeals. The former can be called in by the president, or 20% of the TBMM’s deputies, to decide if a new law is constitutional.

Since the constitutional referendum of September 2010, the court has had 17 members, rather than the previous 11. Parliament was given the authority to appoint three of these new judges, with other nominating bodies also brought into the process. The Court of Appeals (or Court of Cassation) reviews the decisions of the civil and criminal lower courts. There is no jury system, with decisions taken by a panel of three judges in serious cases, while single judges deal with trials at the lower levels.

In the administrative system, the highest chamber is the Council of State. This reviews decisions of the lower administrative courts and can also give its opinions on new legislation to the government. In the military system, the highest court is the Supreme Military Court of Appeals. The military courts under it have jurisdiction in cases involving military personnel acting against other military personnel, or over crimes committed on military property or during the exercise of military duty. They also have jurisdiction in areas under martial law, or emergency rule.

In 2009 civilian courts were vested with the power to try military personnel accused of threatening national security or being involved in organised crime. This opened the door to prosecution of a number of military commanders accused of involvement in conspiracies to overthrow the government – the “Ergenekon” case (see analysis).

This also further aligned the Turkish judiciary with EU accession requirements, such as full civilian oversight of the military. Turkey is also a signatory to a number of European conventions with legal ramifications, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Crimes against the security of the state were previously tried by state security courts (DGMs), with three judges, one of whom was military. This system was changed in 2005 after constitutional reforms, with DGMs replaced by heavy penal courts. These remain controversial, as debate on the nature of crimes against the security of the state continues.

The promotion and appointment of judges, abolition or establishment of courts and review of objections is carried out by the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, which is overseen by the minister of justice. This was also expanded by the 2010 referendum changes, from seven to 22 members, with several new bodies receiving the right to nominate.

Currently, there is major debate on further constitutional reforms, with 2012 set as a year in which the government is due to launch its proposals, with a further referendum likely. Advocates say a new package will complete the shift away from the military-written constitution of 1982, aligning Turkey’s politics with European states and placing the soldiers firmly under civilian, political authority. Others, meanwhile, fear that such a move may undermine the balance between secular and religious forces in the country, paving the way for a more radical, Islamist Turkey; the military has long been seen by many CHP and MHP supporters as a guarantor of secularism. Given this polarity, finding cross-party agreement on a new charter has not been easy, with the process widely seen likely to take most of 2012 to complete.

OUTLOOK: The year ahead, then, is likely to see continued debate on constitutional reform. It should also see Turkey taking an important role in regional conflicts, such as that in Syria, while its role as a model for the wider Muslim world will also continue to be debated. The EU accession process is unlikely to see much progress, meanwhile, with EU domestic politics and the deadlocked Cyprus dispute set to continue to jam the wheels. Greek Cyprus also becomes EU term president in July 2012, and Turkey does not recognise the Greek Cypriot state.

Domestically, the AKP looks well positioned to consolidate its hold on the levers of power, with the party’s different wings seeking to maintain their authority, while preserving overall balance. For the opposition, these will continue to be difficult times, as they seek to convince Turks that they have a more forward-looking vision for the country’s youthful population. Meanwhile, the old Turkey continues to retreat, with its institutions increasingly coming under the influence of the new political realities.

You have reached the limit of premium articles you can view for free. 

Choose from the options below to purchase print or digital editions of our Reports. You can also purchase a website subscription giving you unlimited access to all of our Reports online for 12 months.

If you have already purchased this Report or have a website subscription, please login to continue.

The Report: Turkey 2012

Politics chapter from The Report: Turkey 2012

Cover of The Report:Turkey 2012

The Report

This article is from the Politics chapter of The Report: Turkey 2012. Explore other chapters from this report.