ISTANBUL, June 3 Turks vote in a an election on
June 12 with confidence boosted both by having one of the
world's fastest growing economies, and by belief that their
democracy has finally consigned military coups to the past.
Reforms undertaken by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK
Party since it came to power in 2002 appear to have broken the
cycles of financial and political crises that have punctuated
The AK's success, Erdogan's dominance and the weaknesses of
the opposition mean the only uncertainty really hanging over the
election result is the margin of victory.
But there are plenty of issues at stake in this complicated,
overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 74 million people, clinging to
its ambition of European Union membership.
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If the AK, which emerged a decade ago from banned Islamist
parties, wins a two-thirds majority it would make it a lot
easier for Erdogan to push through a planned new constitution.
Here is a brief run down on the main issues for the AK, the
secular opposition, nationalists and the Kurdish minority;
For Turks in work it must seem like the good times will
never stop judging by the amount of money they are borrowing,
and what they spend it on -- new homes, cars, foreign holidays.
Inflation is at record lows. The economy grew 8.9 percent
last year, and is expected to exceed 4.5 percent this year.
Unemployment has fallen to 11 percent, low by Turkey's
standards. Youth unemployment is higher at 20 percent -- not
good for a country where the average age is 28 years.
However a record current account deficit is a worry.
Analysts say it could reach 8 percent of GDP this year.
They also say interest rates, kept low despite runaway
growth and a credit boom, will need to go up and the government
should tighten up fiscally, too.
THE KURDISH PROBLEM
An insurgency has blighted Turkey's southeast since the
early 1980s as ethnic Kurds -- who account for up to 15 million
of Turkey's population -- turned militant to fight for rights.
More than 40,000 people have been killed and the scars run
deep on both sides of the conflict.
Erdogan took a risk in 2009 by announcing an initiative to
increase Kurds' cultural rights, including the establishment of
a Kurdish language television and university courses. Uncertain
of public support, Erdogan failed to sustain reforms in the face
of opposition from nationalists in his own party and outside.
Since then on-off ceasefires by the Kurdistan Workers Party
(PKK) rebels over the past year gave some respite, but violence
has picked up ahead of the election. A mass trial of Kurdish
politicians accused of militant links has added to tensions.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has threatened "a big war"
unless the state opens talks by mid-June to end the conflict.
In the southeast, Erdogan's AK party runs second to the
pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), regarded as close
to the PKK. If the BDP candidates do well in the polls, it would
support the case for doing something sooner rather than later.
SECULAR STATE, MUSLIM NATION
The secular state is the legacy of soldier statesman Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923
out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire.
Erdogan says the state will remain secular, though the roots
of his AK party lie in Islamist parties that were banned.
Liberal in economic policy and conservative on social
issues, the AK is sometimes cast as a Muslim version of Europe's
Christian Democrat parties.
Since coming to power in 2002, the AK has not passed much in
the way of major legislation to suggest an Islamist agenda, but
secularists pounce on every perceived encroachment to fan fears.
The AK tried and failed in 2007 to lift a ban on women
wearing the Muslim headscarf entering university or getting a
state job. Since then some universities have taken a more
relaxed stance, and the AK is expect to try again to end a
headscarf ban it regards as anti-democratic and discriminatory.
DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM AND CONSTITUTION
The AK has cast itself as a champion of democracy, having
succeeded in reducing the powers of the military through
reforms meant to bring Turkey closer to EU membership.
Erdogan aims to rewrite the constitution and make a clean
break with a charter written under military tutelage in 1982.
He says the new charter will bolster democracy and pluralism
in Turkey. Critics fear it will be an AK version of democracy.
The opposition accuses the AK of having a secret agenda, and
says it is taking control of all the centres of power,
including, significantly, the judiciary.
The AK, and indeed the EU's European Commission, says reform
of the judiciary, undertaken last year through constitutional
amendments, was needed to strengthen democracy, as senior judges
and prosecutors were seen protecting old secularist elites.
The opposition accuses the AK of cowing media critics. Dogan
Yayin, Turkey's biggest media group, was hobbled by massive tax
fines that drew European Commission criticism. Dogan managed to
cut the fines sharply through a tax amnesty and court appeals.
The jailing of journalists in an investigation of an alleged
network of secularists conspiring to topple the government in
recent months also raised fears over press freedom in Turkey.
The AK gained plenty of kudos from launching Turkey's
European Union accession process in 2005. Turks enthusiasm for
EU membership was a plus for the AK going into the 2007
election, but this time its almost a non-issue.
Major EU states, France and Germany, are reluctant to admit
Turkey, a large Muslim nation with a substantial number of
people still living in economically backward areas.
Turkey's government still makes EU membership a top
priority, while noting public disenchantment. Looking at their
own booming economy, many Turks now wonder what they would gain
by joining a 27-nation bloc given the eurozone's debt woes.
(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Ralph Boulton)