Turkey ruling party eyes victory in Sunday vote

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2011 11:22 AM
Turkey ruling party eyes victory in Sunday vote

Such is the confidence of Turkey's ruling party ahead of elections Sunday that its campaign posters show the prime minister, eyes raised skyward, next to slogans referring to the centenary of the Turkish republic, still more than a decade away.

"Turkey is ready, the goal is 2023," the billboards proclaim.

Never mind that another election victory would mean a third consecutive term of just five years in power. The government is thinking big, setting a long-term deadline for a raft of ambitious policy goals.

It's an attitude that has carried Turkey, a NATO ally with a mostly Muslim population, far in the past decade, raising its diplomatic profile in a conflict-prone region, boosting economic growth and invigorating its democratic credentials after years in the political shadow of the military.

Yet the prospect of another resounding victory for the headstrong prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, coupled with allegations that an autocratic streak is creeping into his leadership, have fed concerns that the government's consolidation of power is undermining vows to strengthen Turkish democracy.

Some commentators point to plans for Internet filters, concerns about press freedom and relatively heavy-handed police conduct at some anti-government demonstrations as signs of official intolerance. The apparent backtracking on Western-style reform comes as Turkey's bid to join the EU remains a distant goal.

There is a general lack of suspense about the election, with many commentators debating not who will win, but how wide the government's margin of victory will be. The real uncertainty, they say, lies in the aftermath of the vote, when the government has a freer hand to focus on policy rather than polls.

"This is a big test" of the ruling party's democratic credentials, said Nora Fisher Onar, an assistant professor in the department of politics and international relations at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

She said "a great deal of progress" has been made in terms of democratic change, but that imperfections remain and there are questions about whether the government has "the depth and breadth of vision" to look beyond its political self-interest.

Many Turks are happy with the way things are, which suggests the government will stick to the broad outlines of past policies. A survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Projects shows that Turks are increasingly optimistic about the direction the country is taking. Around 49 percent of Turks voiced dissatisfaction with the way things were going, compared to 60 percent last year.

According to the survey, 62 percent of Turks have confidence that Erdogan, whose wide-ranging foreign policy does not always fall in line with Western allegiances, is on the right track in world affairs.

The poll also noted a link between such attitudes and Islamic piety in Turkey, where the government, led by devout Muslims who call themselves "conservative democrats," has dislodged hardline secularist circles from power.

Sixty-four percent of Muslim Turks who pray five times a day are satisfied with the country's direction, double the number of those who hardly ever pray or only do so during religious holidays, the survey said. The poll of 1,000 Turks was conducted in March and April and had a margin of error of 4 percent.

Erdogan has promised to push for a new, more democratic constitution to replace the one that was implemented under the tutelage of the military in 1982. He seeks a two-thirds majority in parliament that would enable his party to rewrite the constitution without the support or input of other parties.

"To prepare a constitution that values basic rights and freedoms, one that is all-comprising, one that the people can call their own, is the first of my goals," he said in a television interview with Turkey's Kanal 24 this week.

Many Turks believe the current constitution is outdated and restrictive on issues such as minority rights. But the ruling party has given few details as to what a new constitution would entail or how it would address the grievances of the minority Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people.

A resolution of the Kurdish issue is critical to Turkey's democratic development and a drag on its EU aspirations.

The minority has been a traditional target of state discrimination and is making increasing demands for autonomy and the right to education in the Kurdish language. Kurdish militants have waged a nearly 27-year insurgency that killed tens of thousands.

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of Kurdish rebels, has warned of increased attacks after the election unless the government agrees to negotiations to end the conflict.

Erdogan has suggested the new constitution could bring greater language freedoms but has spoken against a key demand by Kurds _ the lifting of a 10 percent electoral threshold that keeps smaller parties out of the parliament. A Kurdish party with a strong showing in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, but poorer support elsewhere in the country, is fielding independent candidates to circumvent the hurdle.

The ruling Justice and Development Party has championed reforms since coming to power in 2002 and presided over a strong economy. The growth rate last year was nearly 9 percent, the second highest among the G-20 nations after China.

It has reached out to neighbors, befriending Syria and Iran to the consternation of some in the West, and has had mixed success in an ambitious role as mediator in regional conflicts. Turkey sees itself as a model democracy for Middle East, where populations are rising up against their autocratic leaders.

Since winning elections in a landslide in 2007, the ruling party has also steadily curbed powers of the military and the judiciary, two institutions suspicious of its Islamic background and alleged efforts to undermine the country's secular rules.

Erdogan has recently indicated he would like to change Turkey's parliamentary system to a presidential system, raising alarms among critics who fear he seeks the post for himself as a means of staying in power until the 2023 centenary.

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Torchia, AP's Turkey bureau chief, reported from Beirut.