The local elections in Turkey on March 29, widely regarded as a referendum for the ruling Justice and Democratic Party (AKP) as well as for its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raised questions over whether democratic reforms will now be initiated. Oli Rhen, the EU Commissioner responsible for enlargement, said that he hoped the election results -showing a sharp decline in the popularity of the AKP- would not weaken the governing party's earlier pledges to carry out democratic reforms (Sabah daily, April 1).
While the AKP won the local elections, their share of the vote contracted for the first time since it came to power in 2002. It won around 38.9 percent of the votes in the provincial assembly elections, representing a two-point decline from the previous local elections in 2004 and an eight-point drop compared with the 2007 general elections. Though the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) won only 5.5 percent of the vote at a national level, it now controls eight provincial municipalities in the east and in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, doubling the number of the municipalities it won in 2004.
"Though the Turkish voters gave a clear mandate to the AKP in the 2007 elections, winning about 47 percent of the votes, it failed to resume the reform period of 2003. But I am optimistic that despite a setback in the AKP votes in Sunday's elections, Ankara will live up to its commitments and start the reform process. Turkey cares about the EU and in meeting its democratic criterion," said an Ankara-based Western diplomat in an interview with Jamestown Foundation.
Turkey's relations with the EU soured after Brussles partially suspended membership talks in 2007 following a dispute over trade with Greek Cyprus -which Turkey refuses to recognize. Though Ankara declared that it remained committed to transforming the country as part of its bid to join the EU, little progress has been made on reforms since then.
In an attempt to ease concerns that the AKP's local election setback might reduce its appetite for reforms, Nihat Ergün, the head of the AKP's parliamentary group, suggested that the party will in fact institute systemic reforms to advance its EU membership plans. Ergün also ruled out a snap general election as a response to the AKP's poor performance in the local elections. "We will assemble a new plan that will include some amendments to the Constitution," Ergün explained, while adding that a complete overhaul of the constitution will probably not be on the government's agenda (Today's Zaman, April 2).
On April 2 an EU diplomat told Jamestown: "The Government has enough time until the national elections to push for reforms. All parties should evaluate the election results. We, the EU have been expecting a less confrontational and more cooperative spirit to emerge for reforms. The opposition parties should also swallow a bit of pride and support the reforms."
A general consensus is not expected to result in a complete amendment of the 1982 Consitutiton, owing to continued public divisions. According to Salih Kapusuz, the former head of the AKP's parliamentary group, the government might opt for early elections only in response to failing to implement constitutional changes. Meanwhile, Kapusaz believes that adjustments to policy as well as the administrative structure of the party might enable the AKP to regain its lost pulic support (Today's Zaman, 2 April).
Neither the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which received 23.1 percent of the votes, an increase of 2.3 percent compared to the 2004 local elections, nor the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has increased its votes to 16.07 percent compared to 10.5 percent in 2004, said they favored an early election.
The government appointed a deputy from the AKP, Egemen Bagis in January 2009, as the Minister of State responsible for the EU negotiations, as a sign that Ankara would tackle the reform process seriously. This task had long been the responsibility of Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.
In December 2008 Turkey's Parliament approved a 400-page National Program (NP) which outlined the political and the economic reforms Turkey will pursue to comply with the EU criterion. However, Ankara has avoided giving a timetable to fulfil the EU political criterion for membership. These areas include the normalisation of civil-military relations, as well as standards for human rights and the judiciary. Whereas the NP provides a specific timescale for making the required legislative changes in the economic sphere.
As one Western diplomat advocated, in an interview with Jamestown, the political criterion should ideally refer to specific laws and strict deadlines should be set for these alterations. This indicates the lack of high level consensus within the country on reforming its most sensitive areas that require an overhaul to the amendments in the 1982 Constitution. In the aftermath of the local elections, during which none of the political parties made substantial pledges to reform, expectations are high that a push for reforms could commence.
As a start, the government is expected to sign a loan agreement with the IMF, which had been postponed until after the elections, to ease the soaring economic crisis where the official unemployement figure has risen to around 13.6 percent. In a related development, Turkish public support for EU membership has seen a 21 percent increase. The DAP polling agency revealed on March 29 that 75 percent of Turks support Turkey's EU membership, which involves pursuing further democratic reforms. (Taraf, March 29)