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23.07.2007

New to Turkish politics? Here's a rough primer

The Republic of Turkey has functioned under a multi-party system since 1945 which has been interrupted by three military coups, the last in 1980. While often rough and tumble, Turkey's muscular democracy is alive and well.

The single-chamber Parliament, known in English as the Grand National Assembly as Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi – the TBMM in Turkish, has 550 members. Its members are elected for a five-year term by proportional representation and conditional party they represent crossing a 10 percent threshold. The last legislative elections took place in November 2002 and were won by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with 34.27 percent of the total votes. The Republican People's Party (CHP) came in second with 19.39 and is today the main opposition party.

The main players at the moment:

The Justice and Development Party (AKP): Founded in 2001, it is a liberal party, often described as a party with "Islamist roots." The AKP itself rejects this "Islamist" label common in the western media, and claims that it is a pro-Western mainstream party with a "conservative" social agenda but also a firm commitment to liberal market economy and European Union membership. Today they have 367 members in the TBMM.

The Republican People's Party (CHP): Created in 1923 by the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it is the main opposition in the TBMM. In recent decades, it has billed itself a "Social Democrat" party in the mould of European counterparts. In recent years, however, it has also moved to the right to embrace more market-oriented policies. The CHP supports both Turkey's Customs Union with Europe, which has been in place since 1995, and Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.

Young Party (GP): Founded by a young and controversial businessman Cem Uzan in 2002, the party surprised many in the last elections when it got 7.24 percent of the vote after just three months of political life. Failing to pass the 10 percent threshold in 2002 it did not enter parliament but is now back with its strongly nationalist, populist and anti-EU platform.

The Democratic Left party (DSP): Founded in 1985 by Rahsan Ecevit, wife of Bülent Ecevit (a former premier banned from politics after the military coup of 1980), it seized the center-left mantle from the CHP. It was led from 1987 to 2006 by Bülent Ecevit after his return to politics until his death last year. In was the leading party in 1999 elections and ruled in coalition until 2002. It garnered a scarce 1.21 percent of the votes in 2002 and failed to enter Parliament. This year it is running on a joint ticket with its rival on the left, the CHP.

National Movement Party (MHP): Founded in 1969, this party is often described as "ultra-nationalist" party for its history of militancy, its emphasis on "Turkish" identity and its para-military youth wing known as the "Grey Wolves" which figured in much of the left-right violence in Turkey in the 1970's. In 2002, it failed pass the threshold with a total of 8.5 percent of the votes. Since the death of the firebrand founder Alparslan in 1997, the party has moderated its image and rhetoric under successor Devlet Bahçeli. Much of party's new leadership has been drawn from respected names in diplomacy and academia and the party, while remaining skeptical, has toned down its anti-EU rhetoric of the past.

The Motherland Party (ANAP): Founded in 1983 by former president Turgut Özal. ANAP stands in the center right of the political spectrum. It governed from 1983 to 1991; formed a brief governmental coalition with the the DYP in 1995 and then back to power from July 1997 to November 1998 with Mesut Yılmaz at its head. Its strength is in the cities and it transformed the Turkish economy in the 1980's, introducing free-market reforms and down-sizing the public sector and also crafted much of today's pro-EU policy in Turkey. With only 5.12 percent of the votes in 2002, it was left out of Parliament but remained active on the sidelines. Its was to be formally dissolved a few weeks ago in an to merge with the DYP (below) under the banner of a newly reconstituted Democrat Party (DP) but the effort failed. Its leader Erkan Mumcu said the party would not be running in the elections.

The True Path Party (DYP): founded in 1983 by Süleyman Demirel (although he was banned from politics until 1987), is conservative and similar to ANAP but draws its strength from the countryside. A frequent charge is that rivalry between these two center-right parties has aided Islamist politicians. In 2002, it received 9.55 percent of the vote, just shy of that needed to enter parliament. Ultimately, however, it secured a spot in the legislature with the defection of four members from parties who did join Parliament. Now led by Mehmet Ağar, a former police chief and anti-terror czar, it has transformed itself into the new Democrat Party (DP).

The Democrat Party (DP): While officially a new party that sought to mend the destructive rift on the center-right between the long-dueling DYP and ANAP, its name evokes a legend in Turkish politics. It was the first real opposition party in Turkey, the original DP, that took power in 1950 from the establishment CHP. It ruled for a decade until its leader Adnan Menderes was ousted in a 1960 coup and subsequently executed. Menderes' hanging has given him martyr's status in conservative circles. The symbolism of the name is lost on no one, and the party is currently headed by Mehmet Ağar, the former ANAP chief who emerged the winner of the DYP-ANAP merger, which effectively scuttled ANAP and consolidated his leadership over the center-right political spectrum.

Independent Candidates: In this election, some 50 candidates are expected to participate as independents. This is a means to get around a number of obstacles, including the 10 percent threshold, which is the largest parliamentary threshold in Europe and has been criticized as anti-Democratic. Independents only have to pass a threshold in the local constituency, an appealing "Plan B" for many. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, for example, is running solely as a collection of indepents with a strategy of formally regrouping under the party banner once in Parliament. Several leftist candidates are also pursuing this strategy.