Story by Kaileigh Higgins and Kimberly Russell // Photos By Lily Bahramipour and Anthony Savvides
ISTANBUL, Turkey – Thousands donning white baseball caps emblazoned with the Justice and Development Party’s orange light bulb logo flooded a field in the Zeytinburu neighborhood, chanting the name of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erugon.
Children sat on their parents’ shoulders as the crowd waved flags of red, orange and white. Speakers blared the party anthems that have been ubiquitous in Istanbul the past few weeks as members of the conservative and dominant Justice and Development Party, more often referred to as the AKP, stood on stage hand in hand, swaying in time to the music.
With only a week left to reel in support, the AKP viewed the rally as an important chance to solidify support by relaying its campaign promises to potential voters. On June 12, Turks will vote in a general election that features 23 political parties running for the legislature.
Turkey’s Parliament is made up of 550 seats, each one filled by a representative chosen by voters based on a designated political party. The allotted number of seats per district is based on each district’s proportional representation of voters. Though the results of the election will not come in until Sunday night, there is no doubt that the AKP and Erugon, who have been in power since 2002, will continue to rule in Turkey. The only question that remains is whether they will earn enough votes to have a super majority of 330 seats.
As it stands now, the AKP controls around 46 percent, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) controls around 20 percent and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has 15 percent.
“[The AKP] will be elected and will be the ruling party and make up the next government,” said Soli Ozel, a political science and international relations professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Established in 2001, the AKP broke off from of the Virtue Party as a moderate alternative to the Islamist group. By combining conservative social values, progressive economic reform and providing services such as health care and affordable housing, they were able to garner the support of secularists and Islamists alike and rose to power in 2002. The AKP stabilized Turkey, pulling the country out of its worst-ever economic recession, lowering the country’s national debt and decreasing the unemployment rate by lifting most government regulations and enforcing macroeconomic policies.
“The economic situation now is really perfect,” said Ali Atlas, a party supporter, at the rally this past Sunday.
In Erugon’s election proclamation, “The 2023 Vision,” he outlines the party’s plans to place Turkey among the top 10 economies in the world, reduce the unemployment rate to 5 percent, increase the use of alternate energy, join the EU, allow health insurance for all citizens, expand all methods of transportation and increase Turkey’s tourism economy.
The AKP’s economic accomplishments are revered by many Turks. However, the conservative Islamist values of the party have dictated recent policies, such as the restricted sale of alcohol. Turkey, though its population is 99 percent Muslim, follows a secular Constitution that imposes a strict separation between religion and state. While they are outwardly secular – religious parties are banned here – the AKP’s social policies are certainly influenced by its members’ Islamist faith.
“That is a fault-line within the country,” said Ozel. “The increasing religiosity is a matter of concern for many.”
Those against the AKP often cite the growing religious influence as their main source of discontent with the party.
Erman Akalin, 31, is a devout Muslim, but feels that the state has no business enforcing the rules of Islam. “Yes, this is my religion’s rule, but no one can tell me that you need to follow all the rules,” he said. “If it is bad, it is bad for me. It’s just between God and me. I don’t want anyone between God and me.”
Altas, a worker in the textile industry, explained that he, along with many other supporters, won’t vote for the AKP based on their Islamist values. They are more concerned with the economic reforms that the AKP has implemented over the past decade.
“I prefer the services because I need salary, I need revenue, I need income, I need GNP,” he said.
The leading oppositional party, the CHP, led by Kemal Kilicdarogly, is campaigning to prevent AKP’s supermajority. The CHP has a wide variety of followers including liberal and educated elites, students and union workers, and has also been targeting the less powerful conservative voters, baiting them with the Family Insurance Plan and the claim to waive compulsory military service. Known previously for their extreme secularism and anti-conservative policies, they have recently been easing their stances to appeal to a more diverse population of supporters.
“[CHP] is not the right party for me, but there is no alternative at the moment,” said Akalin. Though 23 parties are campaigning this election cycle, many will not see themselves represented in parliament, as the majority will not meet the 10 percent threshold of votes required for representation.
According to Kivanc Ulusoy of Istanbul University, the threshold was originally established to provide political stability for Turkey, preventing disproportionate representation for lesser parties. However, this threshold is now preventing smaller parties from having any representatives, unless they are fielded as independent candidates.
Most notable of the lesser parties is the Peace and Democracy Party, otherwise known as the BDP, which is the party of the Kurdish people. The BDP, unable to reach the threshold in the 2007 elections, has been lending its support to independent candidates in order to gain seats.
If AKP gains the supermajority of national votes, Erugon has made it clear his intent is to create a new Constitution that allows for a more independent state and stronger social policies. Though all the details of the revision have not yet been discussed, one reform they plan to implement is a change in the election process toward a more presidential system.
“It is not our tradition, we do not have very strong checks and balances of parliament. They have been historically very weak,” said Ozel. “You cannot change this in one day. In that sense, I’m weary of a presidential system. We will have to see how they put it together.”
He continued: “We don’t know if AKP is continuing to grow. They lost 8 points nationally in the municipal elections of 2009. We don’t know if they will grow or if they are already stagnated.”