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Full steam ahead on Turkish constitutional reform

By Wolfango Piccoli

Recent opinion polls suggest that Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is on course to win a third successive term with a comfortable parliamentary majority at the June 12 general elections. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears unlikely to achieve his goal of securing the 367 seats necessary to modify the constitution without a referendum. That result would set the stage for an acrimonious political struggle in the aftermath of the election given the AKP's apparent determination to change the constitution and increase the powers of the president. Such volatility could hamper efforts to boost the economy, while also impeding Turkish efforts to boost its international reputation.

Opinion polls show support for the AKP is running at 45-48 percent, ahead of the Republican People's Party (CHP) at 25-28 percent and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at 12-14 percent. However, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is expected to perform strongly in predominantly Kurdish areas. Its candidates are running as independents in order to sidestep a requirement that political parties win at least 10 percent of the national vote in order to win representation in parliament. The BDP could take around 25 seats, up from 19 in the current parliament.

When combined with the expected improvement in the performance of the CHP, the increase in the number of BDP deputies is likely to mean that the AKP will need at least 50 percent of the popular vote in order to win the same number of seats as it did in 2007. If voting tracks the current opinion polls, the AKP is likely to win around 310-335 seats. While this is a comfortable majority (276 votes are required for a simple majority), it is far short of the supermajority it is looking for. The only real way the AKP could win the supermajority is if the MHP falls below the 10 percent threshold and fails to obtain representation in parliament and if the BDP performs poorly in the southeast.

The AKP, however, appears determined to attempt constitutional reform. Its election manifesto, announced on April 16, declares that its first priority will be a new constitution. EU accession efforts, however, are effectively dead. Erdogan has made it clear that he wants to replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential one. He is then expected to attempt to win that post for two consecutive five-year terms.

Even if Erdogan fails to introduce a presidential system, a new constitution could still provoke volatility. Kurdish nationalists are demanding that it eliminate any mention of Turkish ethnicity. Any such initiative would provoke a furious reaction both from opposition Turkish nationalists and the Turkish nationalist wing of the AKP. Similarly, any attempt to amend the first four clauses of the current constitution -- theoretically unalterable -- would result in mass protests from Kemalists and a possible application to the Constitutional Court for the new draft to be annulled.

If, as seems likely, the AKP does not secure the hoped-for supermajority, politics in Turkey after the June election will almost instantly focus on the constitutional referendum and take the government's focus away from pressing economic issues and its efforts to boost the country's international profile.

Wolfango Piccoli is a director with Eurasia Group's Europe Practice. 

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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