Erdogan Seeks Election Mandate to Change Turkey’s Constitution

Turkey will vote today to decide whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should get a mandate to reshape the secular constitution amid an economic boom that contrasts with upheavals to the east and west.

Voting stations open at 7 a.m. in rural eastern Turkey and an hour later in Istanbul and elsewhere in the predominantly Muslim country of 73.7 million people. About 50 million citizens are registered to vote, and they will elect 550 deputies to the parliament in Ankara.

Erdogan’s priority for the new term, which could make him the longest-serving leader since Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is to replace the constitution drafted after a 1980 coup. That would cement his victory over generals who accuse him of imposing Islamic values. Erdogan also pledges to lift Turkey, currently the world’s 16th-biggest economy after annual growth of more than 5 percent under his government, into the top 10 by 2023 when the republic celebrates its centenary.

“This election is different from the previous two, the first one was in the aftermath of a financial crisis and the last one was after a serious spat with the military,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst at the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk. While Erdogan will win, “what’s more important is the distribution of seats,” he said. “The parliamentary mathematics will be crucial.”

Opinion Polls

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party or AKP may win 49 percent of the popular vote, almost double the 26 percent backing the main opposition Republican People’s Party, according to the average of four surveys by researchers Pollmark, Sonar, Konsensus and Genar. The studies were carried out between May 17 and May 31. The AKP came to power with 34 percent of the vote in 2002 and won 47 percent four years ago.

Erdogan’s plan for a new constitution has been a central campaign issue. He argues for shifting from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one, in which he himself would be the leading candidate for the top job.

Erdogan would need 330 votes in the 550-member parliament to put a new constitution to a public vote, and 367 to pass it straight into law.

The premier said June 5 he would “find it unnecessary” to hold a referendum if he wins a big enough majority to change the constitution without one. He currently holds 331 seats and would win 338 based on the four-poll average, according to an application that simulates election outcomes developed by the Ari Movement, an Istanbul think-tank.

‘Best Outcome’

“If AKP remains slightly below 330 seats that would be the best outcome from a market point of view,” Eurasia’s Piccoli said in a telephone interview. “It will force the party to try to seek a compromise on the constitution, and possibly to actually shelve the constitutional plan, which means they’re going to have more time, more focus on economic matters.”

On the $740 billion economy, Erdogan’s third-term challenges will include a widening trade gap that threatens an abrupt halt to Turkey’s boom. The current account deficit ballooned to more than $60 billion, or about 8 percent of gross domestic product, in the 12 months through March, compared with a government forecast of $42 billion for the year.

Still, Erdogan can point to a record of economic growth and improving public finances. Standard & Poor’s increased its credit rating four times since he came to power.

IMF Loans

That’s a contrast with the European Union countries, including Turkey’s neighbor Greece, that have been forced to take International Monetary Fund loans in the past three years as their economies unraveled amid a debt crisis.

In the Middle East, where popular revolts have swept away longtime leaders this year, Erdogan’s political success and Turkey’s economic progress have been cited as a model by opposition parties including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Recalling earlier elections, Hatem Ete of the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research says the key difference this time is that parties are offering long-term projects.

“All the general elections in Turkey’s recent past were held to overcome a crisis,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in the capital. “This time, it’s about how to build the country’s future.”

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