Turkey's Dark Clouds for Election Year 2014

08/08/2013 12:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2013

On August 5, the Istanbul court overseeing the highly controversial and long dragged-out Ergenekon case in Turkey delivered its verdict on individuals charged with belonging to a "terrorist organization" deemed to have been "plotting to subvert the activities of, and bring down the democratically elected government of Turkey by way of a coup or other violent means." Among the convicted are Turkey's former chief of the general staff (equivalent to chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the U.S.), numerous senior military officers, university presidents, professors, journalists and politicians. Whilst a few of the 275 individuals charged have been acquitted, the vast majority has received heavy sentences extending to lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole, as in the case of former Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug.

The verdicts coming out of the Ergenekon trial are clear indicators that Turkey's old power establishment has not only been silenced and marginalized, but also are targets of punishment. As self-appointed guardians of Turkey's Kemalist secularist-nationalist state, the upper echelons of the military -- backed by its civilian components in the form of journalists, academics, politicians, and opinion makers -- have been swept aside. The judicial outcome is intended to serve as a warning to all would-be-challengers to the popularly elected representatives of the people via undemocratic means: challenging electoral authority of any sitting government can only take place at the ballot box. In the words of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's chief political adviser Yalcin Akdogan, "This is the single biggest legal reckoning in the history of the republic."

The country is bitterly divided over the issue. One side is convinced that this was a show-trial, void of any credibility and designed intentionally to eradicate dissent and would-be opponents of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). The other half remains convinced that agents of the "deep state" who were influential in the undemocratic governance of Turkey have finally been made accountable for their actions and brought to justice.

The rulings come at a time of heightened tension and increased polarization in the country. The summer of 2013 has been tumultuous for Turkey. The country witnessed widespread anti-government protests against the AKP. Although Erdogan's government was re-elected in 2011 with a near fifty percent majority, individuals took the streets in the tens of thousands, protesting what in their opinion is growing authoritarian and non-consultative rule. The country-wide protests shook the government's confidence as well as making a very poignant point on the subject of democratic governance: whilst the legitimacy of the government to rule is not in question, the manner in which it is ruling is.

The situation remains extraordinarily tense. The AKP has battened down its hatches, making full use of the state security apparatus to continuously subdue protest potential.

Anti-government protestors on the other hand continue to challenge the AKP's willpower. The country appears to be split down the middle and there is no telling how much the electoral popularity of the government has been shaken in light of these events. 2014, however, will prove to be a good indicator.

In August 2014, Turkey's president will for the first time be directly elected by the people. The most important question surrounding the people's choice for president will be what type of president the people will be choosing. Furthermore, will Tayyip Erdogan run for presidential office? Up until recently presidents were elected by parliament and whilst not as powerless as their Greek counterparts, were certainly no match for the executive privileges that came with being elected as president of the United States, or even more so in Russia. Will Turkey alter its system of government from that of a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system as the AKP and Tayyip Erdogan would certainly like to do? The transition to some type of presidential system is intended to equip its leader with increased executive powers and facilitate smoother implementation of his/her governmental program. The achievement of such a feat can only come about if the government is able to draft a new constitution, pass it through parliament with at least a three fifths majority and successfully get it passed via a public referendum. In brief, these are a lot of "ifs." At this point, it is even unclear if the PM has the full support of his own party as well as other parties in parliament.

Prior to the Gezi protests, the outcome that Turkey was likely to adopt a semi-presidential system looked more certain for the AKP. The question which must be bedeviling policy makers is what a "no" vote mean would for the AKP and Tayyip Erdogan, as well as what the strategy of the government would be should the constitution fail to pass a public referendum. One answer is that the AKP will not insist on a presidential system. Following the Gezi incidents, the government may not push for an outcome it is not confident that it can achieve. Statements to this effect have already been made by several cabinet ministers. Another scenario is based on the government changing the party's by-laws, which would remove impediments preventing Tayyip Erdogan running for the premiership more than three times. The party has been reluctant to do this in the past, mainly based on the perception that party leaders are solely interested in political self-preservation this could create.

The other significant challenge facing the government is upcoming local government and municipal elections, scheduled for spring 2014. Whilst this will not challenge the incumbency of the AKP, it will serve as a good barometer as to how much damage the Gezi protests have done to its reputation and public standing. Opposition parties are in the process of selecting credible candidates to challenge key AKP strongholds in cities such as Ankara and Istanbul. A loss of either of these city governments could seriously damage the AKP's morale.

The number of balls which the AKP is having to keep in the air at any one time has been steadily increasing in the past few months: the deteriorating situation in Syria and the newly emerging Kurdish entity in the country's north, the peace negotiations with the PKK, the increasingly fragile nature of economic conditions, the implications of the Gezi protests and the Ergenekon trials. These issues will continue to apply pressure to the AKP's daily agenda. Moreover, they are likely to be key determinants in the outcome of both the local and presidential elections. Whichever way one looks at the political landscape, it is clear that 2014 will be typified by many dark clouds on the horizon for the country's leaders.