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Turkey’s high court could pull rug from under AKP

Turkey's Constitutional Court is to rule on an electoral threshold issue that some believe could end the Justice and Development Party's 12-year rule.
Constitutional Court Chairman Hasim Kilic, the chief justice, addresses media in Ankara July 7, 2010. Turkey's top court rejected an appeal by the opposition to annul the whole of a government-backed reform package overhauling the constitution, but annulled some key parts of the package. The court's chairman Kilic told a news conference the reform charter, barring annulled parts, would go to a referendum as planned. The government says the reform will deepen democracy and help meet requirements for Turkey t

Will Turkey’s Constitutional Court make a ruling that could upend the political balance in the country and bring about the end of the 12-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)?

A short background is in order: Muharrem Sarikaya of Haberturk added some credence to the rumors in political circles when he spoke to Hasim Kilic, the president of the Constitutional Court. Kilic told Sarikaya that the court is about to reach a decision on the appeal by the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) to nullify the 10% election threshold. Kilic’s remark was interpreted as meaning that the pending decision could affect the general elections in June 2015.

The 10% election threshold requires a party to get at least 10% of the general vote to enter the parliament. If there were no such rule, political parties that got even 1% of the vote could sit in the parliament. In Turkey, right-wing voters and right-wing parties are in the majority. Voters who think their favorite party's showing will be too weak will vote for their second choices, often the more powerful parties. The AKP has benefited considerably from this setup for the past 12 years. Abolishing the threshold would most affect the AKP, as many votes for it would shift to more ideologically right-wing parties. Some Kurds who mostly voted for the AKP before would vote for the HDP. Some observers estimate that any total vote below 40% could mean the loss of single-party rule. Alarm bells are therefore ringing for the AKP, which received 45% of the vote in the last local elections.

Another issue that worries the AKP but encourages the opposition is the tense relations between Kilic and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During the April 24 anniversary of the establishment of the Constitutional Court, Kilic strongly criticized the government. Erdogan has long targeted the high court. Relations between the two have almost reached the breaking point. Kilic, whose tenure ends in March, wields a strong influence on the high court judges. Of them, 10 out of 17 were appointed by the previous president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.

Gul has not yet officially returned to his old party, the AKP, and has been neutral about re-entering politics. Gul’s first run for president, in 2007, was blocked by a Constitutional Court decision. It doesn’t seem likely that Gul, who has significant support and respect from the AKP voters, would use the high court that had once targeted him to manipulate politics.

The debate rages on over what decision the high court will make. Many constitutional experts and politicians say the high court has no jurisdiction over the election threshold and that even if it does, there is no consensus that such a decision would be valid for the 2015 elections.

Al-Monitor spoke with the parties to the debate, including judiciary officials, political party members and journalists. All — speaking on condition of anonymity — agreed that the AKP planned to use the high court to engineer political change, but that when the news was leaked, the plan collapsed. AKP spokesmen say there is resistance to the plan within the court and even predict the appeal will be rejected by "12 votes against 5." They believe that even if the court makes an unexpected decision, the next elections would go ahead with the 10% threshold intact. Pro-government sources insist that the High Board of Elections, which has the last word on elections, would not allow an election without the threshold rule.

It is the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the HDP that have the highest expectations for the Constitutional Court to abolish the threshold. The CHP hopes that such a decision would mean the end of AKP rule and open the way for a coalition government it can join, and the HDP is excited at the prospect of entering parliament. Veteran AKP politicians and most CHP members believe that maintaining the 10% rule would exclude the HDP from parliament, and that this would be a serious risk to the country’s security and democracy in the long run. Some of those who expect an annulment by the high court say enabling the HDP to enter parliament would move Kurdish politics from the streets to the less dangerous confines of parliament.

There are also those in Ankara who think that the Constitutional Court will turn down the appeal on procedural grounds without even discussing its substance. In such a case, the court would transfer the duty of discussing the election threshold to parliament. Apart from the opposition ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party, all other parties have previously committed themselves to lowering the threshold. It now looks likely that such commitments would be fulfilled after the 2015 elections, along with work to amend the constitution.

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