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Turkey Faces Constitution Overhaul, Syrian Refugees

BY Larisa Epatko  June 13, 2011 at 4:23 PM EDT

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo by Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

A decisive win in Sunday’s parliamentary election means Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party will continue to seek a new constitution and beef up its role as a key player in regional politics, analysts say.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won nearly 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections — its best showing since coming to power in 2002 — but now must handle redrafting the constitution and dealing with refugees flowing in from neighboring Syria.

The ruling party landed 326 out of 550 seats, just short of the 330 needed to call a referendum to rewrite the constitution. Erdogan must now bring opposition parties on board to get the charter through parliament. Many Turks agree that their constitution — written in 1982 under a military government — needs updating.

Erdogan’s party has received criticism for seeking to consolidate power more than trying to build a consensus with other parties. But the prime minister struck a conciliatory tone during his victory speech Sunday night, saying he would work with opposition parties on holding a public referendum on a new constitution, Al Jazeera reported.

“The problem with Turkish politics is that you do have a tendency for political parties to be dominated by one person,” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program and a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

“Erdogan is a successful politician. He won because the economy is doing well, people didn’t want to change horses in mid-race, and he knows how to appeal. And he built a formidable political machine.”

The new constitution poses Erdogan’s greatest challenge, Barkey continued, because of the importance placed on it and because expectations are high. The process of rewriting the constitution will take a long time, he added, but people want it.

Also in his victory speech, Erdogan said the win was not only for his party but for other Muslims and people in the Middle East as well. “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir,” he said.

People had been saying since the launch of the Arab Spring and the economic and political upheaval in the region that Turkey would have to re-evaluate its foreign policy, but Erdogan’s speech was meant to send the message that Turkey is still a regional player and would continue to actively engage in the region, according to Barkey.

But the region’s instability is now impacting Turkey directly, with thousands of Syrians having fled to Turkey to escape the fighting in their country between anti-government protesters and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

For Turkey, that was a game-changer, said Barkey. Turkey gets along with all neighboring governments, but Syria in particular was a showcase of Turkish foreign policy, he explained. And for a long time, Turks had hoped that Assad would reform — Erdogan has spoken to Assad directly about it and sent his intelligence chief and foreign minister to try to convince him to introduce reforms — but Assad has spurned him, Barkey noted.

According to Barkey, Syria made a tactical error by going after the town on the Turkish border and causing the exodus of its residents to Turkey, which essentially forced Turkey to take a position.

Erdogan last week accused the Assad government of “savagery” and said he would approach the Syrian government “very differently” after the Turkish elections.

And Turkey, which at one time gave Assad critical support and legitimacy when he felt Syria was encircled by the U.S. and other Western allies, now might move closer to the West on Syria because there appears to be no solution and all indications point to the situation getting worse, Barkey said.

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