A worrying hiccup
Oct 2nd 2003 | ANKARA
From The Economist print edition
A court decision is threatening to undermine Turkey's ambitious reforms
AFTER ten months in office, Turkey's first single-party government in 16 years has made a splendid start in its effort to reverse decades of corruption, economic mess and authoritarian abuse of power. Inflation and interest rates have dropped sharply, earning the prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, and his ruling Justice and Development Party glowing plaudits from Turkey's vital benefactor, the IMF. A report due out this month by the European Union on Turkey's progress towards meeting the criteria to let it start negotiating to join the EU is likely to be the most laudatory since Turkey formally asked to join the club 16 years ago. But all this progress could come to a bad-tempered halt, thanks to a recent ruling by a Turkish appeals court.
The reason the judges may have thrown a spanner in the works (and, by the by, caused the markets to dive) is that they have upheld the convictions of four members of a mainly Kurdish party, previously sentenced to 23 months each for forging registration documents before last November's general election. Under Turkish law, a party must show it had offices in more than half the country's 81 provinces at least six months before an election in order to stand. The Democratic People's Party, known as Dehap, said it had 63 offices when, according to the prosecution, it had only 27. Some 2m voters, mostly in the Kurdish south-east, plumped for Dehap, but that was not enough for it to cross the national threshold of 10% of votes cast to win seats in parliament.
The court's decision has created such dismay among reformers because, if all Dehap's votes are ruled invalid, the ensuing redistribution of votes would mean that the conservative True Path party, which fell just short of clearing the 10% hurdle, would get into parliament after all. That might deprive Mr Erdogan of his overall majority in parliament, making it much harder for his government to force through its ambitious array of reforms. It would certainly deprive him of the two-thirds of seats (which he almost has) needed to change the constitution—and, among other things, overhaul the judiciary.
The current parliament, dominated by the mix of Islamists, liberals, nationalists and Kurds in Mr Erdogan's party, has approved a slew of revolutionary reforms. They include diluting the influence of Turkey's powerful generals and letting the country's 14m Kurds broadcast in their own tongue and teach it (though not have all lessons in it) in private schools.
The generals and the old-style secular parties would still love Mr Erdogan to trip up. They despise him for his Islamist past, which he now tends to disavow. And they resent his tightening grip on power. Indeed, Mr Erdogan's supporters suspect that some of his detractors' friends on the electoral board allowed Dehap to run even though they knew its faulty paperwork could disqualify it, because they hoped that it would take votes away from Mr Erdogan's lot in the Kurdish parts of the country, where both parties are strong.
Still, if the recent court verdict means shaking up parliament's composition to Mr Erdogan's detriment, he could ask the president to call another election—and his party might well win even more handsomely than before. Last time round, it won 35% of votes cast, almost twice the score of the secular-minded Republican People's Party, the only other one to win seats in parliament. Pollsters say that if an election were held today, Mr Erdogan's party might get 40%, probably enabling it to alter the constitution on its own. So the electoral board may yet decide to uphold the election result—and let Mr Erdogan keep his thumping majority in parliament.
In any event, Mr Erdogan might be wise, as part of his reforms, to lower the national barrier of 10% so that the many Kurds who want to vote for Kurdish parties are not, in effect, disenfranchised.
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