Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP is almost certain to win Turkish elections on June 12. Polls show support for the party ranging from 42 percent to 50 percent, predicting a landslide victory.
Critics fear such a victory would help Erdogan tighten his grip on power and establish a de facto one-party system. That could undermine freedom and democratic rights and raise pressure on the secular opposition and Kurdish groups.
The AKP has dismissed the criticism and has promised that a new civilian constitution would be adopted.
"Fears about the future of democracy in Turkey are unfounded," said Volkan Bozkir, a former career diplomat who has led efforts for Turkey's campaign for EU membership and is now an AKP deputy candidate for parliament.
"AKP has already been in government as a single party for the last eight and a half years. Turkey has already come closer to an advanced democracy, founded on liberal ideas, freedom and free enterprise, with a larger role for civil society, with basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by the system."
In the last decade, Turkey has become one of the world's fastest growing economies. It significantly boosted its role in international politics, even at times causing diplomatic rifts between Turkey's longtime ally, the US, and Israel. While Turkey gained more international recognition as a growing regional power, its record in democratic rights and freedoms has deteriorated in recent years.
Polarization and the suppression of criticism
The Washington-based think tank Freedom House views Turkey as a "partly free" country and criticizes the government for its restrictions on press freedom. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is currently holding at least 57 journalists in prison. Restrictions on access to the Internet, deliberate and widespread wire-tapping practices and a growing government intolerance of critics are also concerns.
"There is widespread concern that Turkey is heading towards one-man, one-party rule," said Dogan Tilic, spokesman for the G9 group, a platform of leading Turkish journalist associations. "We are entering into a more difficult period for journalists. More and more journalists are detained. This is very bad for press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey."
AKP first came to power in 2002, with 34.3 percent of the vote. In 2007, it won 46.6 percent, but during these two terms, it could not get an absolute majority. If the party now wins 367 seats or more, it will have an absolute majority in parliament and will be able to change the constitution, without the need for a referendum.
Since AKP first came to power, Turkey has faced a deepening polarization between the party and its secular armed forces and judiciary. The AKP has managed to put the military back in the barracks and reduce their role in society.
For the first time in Turkey's recent history, generals and high level military officials could be charged for alleged coup attempts. Despite sensational claims in the indictments of coup cases, a lack of concrete evidence and long detention period for suspects, the public has become increasingly critical of the military.
The second bastion of secularists, the judiciary, became less ideological following recent reforms, but these reforms meant the government now has more influence on the judiciary. Critics argue that in recent years Turkey has been left without a system of checks and balances. They say that in its new term the AKP may force Islamization through authoritarian rule.
Metin Heper, a professor at Bilkent University, disagrees. "The AKP has come to power through elections. So far it hasn't made a single attempt to change civil law. The AKP is not trying to make Turkey an Islamic state," he said.
"If it went down the Islamist route, it would lose most of its electorate. Even though the military today lost its political influence, it cannot stay indifferent to a move by any party that will try to turn Turkey into a theocracy. And if we are talking about EU membership, you will find yourself out of the EU, the moment you leave aside democracy."
A new constitution for Turkey
One of the AKP's major promises ahead of the elections is a new constitution, with the existing document drafted after the 1980 military coup and largely reformed during the EU accession campaign. The AKP says it wants to make the military even less political and make way for religious freedoms and, as Erdogan has promised, adopt a presidential system.
"The most important step after the elections will be the new civilian constitution. This will mark the end of military tutelage and the psychology of military coups since 1960," said former diplomat Bozkir.
"There will be strong foundations in the new constitution to prevent such interventions again. Turkey will have the constitution it deserves. A libertarian constitution, which stresses the role of a civil society and guarantees basic rights and freedoms."
While almost all political parties agree on limiting the political power of the armed forces, broadening democratic rights and freedoms, two major issues, secularism and broader rights for Kurds, continue to be the most divisive elements of constitutional debate.
The rough election campaign so far, harsh statements and accusations among political leaders have created a tense climate, which limits prospects of consensus on a new constitution after the election. This also deepens the polarization and could block a possible solution to the decades-long Kurdish issue, through accommodating Kurdish demands as part of a new constitution.
"The governing party may adopt a new constitution if it were to win an absolute majority in the parliament. But then the legitimacy of this constitution will be questionable," said Bilkent University's Heper.
"Political leaders should move towards reconciliation. Otherwise, the issue of the constitution will once again polarize Turkey. It will divide us into two, three, four. Turkey will face more problems."
Author: Ayhan Simsek / hf
Editor: Stuart Tiffen