Turkey: Quo Vadis

Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP wave Turkish and AKP flags during a rally on Saturday. Turkey holds legislative elections July 22. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

With one week to go before elections, Turkey seems somewhat lethargic about politics. Nevertheless, here in Istanbul, minivans with electoral slogans and logos plastered on them circulate throughout the city. From loudspeakers music blares onto the crowded sidewalks and the promises of candidates and their party platforms are spewed out in ear piercing decibels. The colorful vans stop in narrow alleyways and distribute festoons and flags to eager young children and to Turkish voters who seem to be delighted with these party "presents" or free electoral handouts.

Politicians are on the campaign trial pandering their electoral programs to the masses in towns and villages across the country. The most remote communities still are without running water and sewage but their residents have the right to vote. In the heat wave that has gripped the country for weeks, there is an air of apathy or an almost palpable indifference. Projections are that the weather might reduce the turnout at the polls, a scenario the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) dreads. A low turn out would likely mean more seats for the opposition CHP (Republican People's Party) and the ultranationalist National Movement Party.

An Electoral Casino

The Turkish vote is a complicated numbers game for a novice like me. And placing bets on who will win at the polls in the tearooms and coffee houses of the city can be tricky. As a kind Turkish reader pointed out to me (for I am perplexed by the complexity of Turkish politics), it takes 255 seats to form a government in the Turkish parliament out of 510 seats in all. However, it takes the votes of 367 deputies to elect a new president. Assuming as the polls predict that the AKP is reelected with a reduced majority it will then govern in partnership with the other two parties mentioned above.

The new government's top priority in the post-electoral period will then be to elect a new head of state. The potential hitch is this: the ruling party can't endorse a candidate of its own without the support of its coalition partners. The AKP's man is Abdullah Gul. He has been selected to run by his party's rank and file and the benediction of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet so far, there is apparently no real consensus on the other potential presidential candidates and no clear frontrunners to challenge Gul's candidacy, which looks like a done deal. (Gul has not hidden his pro-Islamist leanings.) So as the local press predicts "a presidential impasse is on the horizon." Furthermore, what if a hung parliament results in no party being able to form either a minority or a majority? Then the electoral casino could result in a parliamentary circus without a head of state.

It is not clear whether the next president will be elected by a majority vote in parliament, chosen in a last minute, midnight session in a smoky backroom parlor or chosen directly by a popular nationwide vote. No agreement has been made yet on a consensus candidate acceptable to all coalition parties forming the next government.

Boom Times?

The Turkish economy seems on the surface at least to be in good health. As AKP posters proudly proclaim, inflation is at the lowest it's ever been?n the single digits. It is growing at an average of 7 percent yearly. The stock markets last week hit an all time high. However, Istanbul is an island of prosperity. The banks and multinationals based in this city make it a magnet for high-salaried corporate jobs. Yet this tends to mask the stubbornly high unemployment rate among the idle youths who fill the tearooms during the day. According to residents born here, Istanbul is also inundated with newcomers looking for work.

Onur Ozcan, a 28-year-old smartly dressed businessman, tells me over a chilled mug of Efes beer that there's "too much speculation but not enough production" in Turkey, especially in the manufacturing sector. There doesn't seem to be enough local output to underpin and consolidate the current bonanza driven mainly by the very fickle short-term foreign investment capital flowing in and out of the country. He also points out that if Turkey fails in its bid to join the European Union other options are on the table. Turkey is seeking to gain access for its exports such as textiles in other markets located in Russia or Asia in case Europe closes its doors. Europe's loss in this regard would likely be Asia's gain.

Europe: El Dorado or Nemesis?

The European Union's current ambivalence toward Turkey is reflected in the tensions arising in Cologne, Germany, where Turkish Muslims are seeking to build a new mosque. Despite these frictions, the fact that 2.5 million Germans of Turkish decent live and work in Europe is an unbreakable bond between Brussels, Berlin and Ankara. Cheap Turkish labor has helped the European Union economy and the remittances the workers send to their "second homeland" have been a boon to the local economy in Turkey. Yet, in the long run, the accession of Turkey into the union depends on how well the Islamic community integrates itself in Europe. For now, the union issue looks to be on the backburner in this pre-electoral period. There are more pressing issues to address after the elections related to foreign affairs: growing tensions with the United States, the ongoing Kurdish revolt and its "spillover effect" into northern Iraq, and last but not least Turkey's bid to become a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council. These matters will likely remain unresolved until Turkey elects a new majority government and finds a new president.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Michael Werbowski.