Dispatch

The Coronation of Erdogan

Turkey's ruling party is in line to win the election by a landslide on June 12. Can anyone stop them from changing the country's constitution?

ISTANBUL — Durdane Coskun is in a frantic rush. A housewife with three children who spends most of her time at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaign office in the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Beykoz, she organizes meetings, answers phone calls, distributes brochures and flags, and sometimes even cooks for more than 20 other volunteers. Her colleagues dash around the office, which is painted in a dull yellow and covered with large portraits of a smiling Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country's prime minister, and a grainy picture of Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk, praying with his deputies, hands open, palms facing skyward.

"My waking hours are dedicated to this cause," Coskun says. "I take care of the household chores after midnight." Then, with a big smile on a face neatly framed with a colorful, silk headscarf, she says, "It's for the love of our prime minister, our country. It's for the future of our people."

With less than two days left before Turks go to the ballot box in parliamentary elections on Sunday, June 12, the AKP is riding high in the polls. With thousands of volunteers like Coskun working around the clock, there is little doubt that the party will win a landslide victory for the third time.

It's still an open question, though, just what the AKP's agenda will be. Erdogan, who has won the admiration of many in the past eight years for bringing political and economic stability to a formerly crisis-prone country, has long promised an inclusive, pluralistic constitution -- if he wins a third term. "After the 2011 elections, we will definitely make a new constitution," he told Taraf newspaper in August 2010. Turkey's current constitution is a relic of a bygone military era, a straitjacket designed by the country's adamantly secular generals in the aftermath of the 1980 coup to curb civil liberties. But many fear that this new constitution may entrench the AKP's power and weaken the opposition, including the country's large and unhappy Kurdish minority.

Indeed, Erdogan's fiery campaign rhetoric has polarized the country. His frequent references to the opposition leader's minority religious identity (Kemal Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi Muslim) were interpreted as derogatory. Recently, he said he would have "hanged" Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of the outlawed Kurdish separatist group, putting more strain on the already tense situation with the Kurds, many of whom have been beaten or tear-gassed at anti-Erdogan rallies in the past weeks. But in the absence of a robust opposition -- and with the military's influence in politics significantly reduced from its heyday -- Erdogan's power is mostly unrivaled.

The margin of the AKP's victory, which is the only unknown about Sunday's vote, will play a critical role in determining Erdogan's leadership style and the country's post-election atmosphere. According to Konda, a private survey company, the party seems to have secured 46.5 percent of the votes, which translates to 328 to 332 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The Republican People's Party, the main opposition party known as the CHP, is poised to get 26 percent of the votes and thus secure 145 to 155 seats; the MHP, a far-right nationalist party struggling to cross the 10 percent threshold required to enter the parliament, is polling at 10.8 percent.

Konda's manager, Bekir Agirdir, explains that if the AKP gets 367 seats in the parliament -- admittedly unlikely, according to the latest polling -- it will reach the two-thirds "supermajority" it needs to rewrite the constitution, without the cooperation of other parties or having to call for a referendum. That would raise suspicions about how inclusive the new charter would be.

If the AKP wins 330 seats, however, it would not be able to act on its own. In such a scenario, the AKP would have to call for a referendum on the proposed constitutional changes. Anything below 330 would force the party to reach consensus with the opposition to be able to pass any major legislation.

The process of rewriting the Turkish Constitution is closely tied to the Kurdish question, which has long tainted the country's democratic record. Last year, Erdogan initiated the "Kurdish Opening," a much-debated move to start dialogue about Kurdish demands for cultural rights. The prime minister's courageous steps were met with applause, yet an unforeseeable event complicated his calculations. Encouraged by the changing dynamics, some militants associated with the PKK -- a separatist Kurdish group -- returned to Turkey. Hundreds of Kurds gathered in southeastern cities, singing Kurdish songs and waving the outlawed organization's yellow-green-red flags, to welcome the militants. The event prompted an outcry among Erdogan's opponents, who immediately accused the prime minister of embracing terrorists. Realizing that the political cost of breaking the decades-long deadlock on the Kurdish issue would be too high, Erdogan changed course, abandoning his promises to initiate dialogue.

Erdogan's break with the Kurds has decisively changed this election campaign. Mesut Yegen, a sociology professor at Istanbul Sehir University who focuses on the Kurdish issue, suggests that to make up for the lost Kurdish votes in the southeast, the prime minister has been targeting MHP votes by adopting a more nationalistic tone. Journalist Cengiz Candar counts on the possibility of Erdogan returning to his signature "pragmatism" after the vote and perhaps easing his rhetoric on the Kurds. Winning them back, however, will be much harder.

Fed up with the stalemate, Kurdish politicians have changed their tune, too: Their calls for autonomy are only increasing in volume. According to Yegen, Erdogan has irreparably lost touch with the Kurds. "AKP candidates running in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern towns are mostly accomplished bureaucrats or businesspeople," he says. "This implies that Erdogan thinks the Kurdish issue is ultimately an economic problem, whereas for Kurds it's about who they are."

There are other signs of a profound political transformation in the country. Under its new leader, Kilicdaroglu, the CHP is rebranding itself. The party has long harbored sympathies for the adamantly secular army, which for years fought against the separatist PKK militants in Turkey's rugged southeast. Now, the CHP is presenting itself as a liberal party that is eager to talk to others, including the Kurds. Sezgin Tanrikulu, the party's Kurdish vice president, says the party is "reaching out to those on the periphery." Tanrikulu's presence on the CHP ticket is widely interpreted as a strong sign of change within the opposition.

Disappointed by Erdogan's unkept promises, Kurdish deputies seem likely to push harder for recognition of the Kurdish minority after the elections. Inspired by the Arab Spring, some Kurds are discussing resorting to acts of civil disobedience. This may include "not singing the Turkish anthem at schools" or "refusing to serve in the Turkish army," Yegen says.

What's clear is that Sunday's election will be the beginning, not the end, of determining Erdogan's ultimate legacy in Turkey. Demonstrating his ability to unite a deeply divided society under the umbrella of a new, inclusive constitution would secure a place in the history books for the prime minister. The question is whether he has the ability, and the will, to pull it off.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Siege of Misrata

Deep in Qaddafi-held territory, a rebel stronghold grits its teeth and hopes for the best.

MISRATA, Libya — In the center of Misrata, a small girl clambers on top of an abandoned tank. It's part of a makeshift exhibit in a public square of this battered, besieged city, one of many scattered throughout. Beside a row of tanks, spent bullet cartridges and blasted rocket cases are carefully placed alongside boots and uniforms discarded by Muammar al-Qaddafi's fleeing soldiers, all arranged as neatly as fossils in a museum display cabinet.

This is a city in shock. For two months, it was pulverized by troops loyal to the Libyan regime. Mortars destroyed civilian homes. Snipers took aim from towers. More than a thousand people died, according to the New York Times. Many more disappeared -- or were taken -- from their homes.

Now, Qaddafi's soldiers have been pushed out to a perimeter 16 miles from the city's edge. The people of Misrata are no longer at risk from rockets falling on their homes. But the siege is not over. This rebel enclave is deep in Qaddafi-held territory, only 130 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. Almost every day sees the bodies of wounded young rebel fighters brought to the city's hospitals. Men are still dying here.

The city survives only because it is near the sea, and boats can bring food and medical supplies for its people and weapons and ammunition for its fighters.

"It's a very bad situation," says Mohammed Salim, a 40-year-old engineer who was buying food for his four children at a small supermarket in the center of town. "Some days you need more than three hours to get bread." Qaddafi's troops destroyed food stores and bakeries. There is little fresh food available inside the city, and the farms in the surrounding countryside are now inaccessible. Fruits, vegetables, eggs, and milk are hard to obtain. "We live now through the port," adds Salim. "If it closes, the city will die."

At night, the streets are quiet. Restaurants remain closed. The long, sandy beaches, licked by turquoise waves, are empty. For many, work has ceased. "There's no jobs here now. Just helping the people, that's our job now," says Majdi Lameen, 36, who ran an import-export business before the revolution.

Early on in the siege, the people of Misrata rallied to protect one another. Food was distributed to families in need. Private clinics opened to the public and provided medicine to the wounded for free. Shipping containers filled with sand were positioned across the roads, to impede the progress of Qaddafi's vehicles.

A flow of volunteers came to help, arriving on boats from Benghazi and Malta. Misrata's diaspora has returned to help. I meet Libyans who came back from Canada, England, and Switzerland to work. "We didn't consider it our country," one of them tells me in fluent, accent-less English. "We considered it his country. And he ruined it." The privileged son of a prominent Libyan family, he once traveled the world. Now he fights at the front line.

Life here is on hold. Sometimes even the war is on hold. Despite the fighter jets blasting Tripoli and the combat helicopters newly deployed at the front line in the country's east, the war continues into its fourth month with no clear end in sight. Qaddafi's troops still surround the city on three sides, blasting the rebels with their heavy artillery.

One day at the front line, I find a circle of men sitting on picnic rugs in a copse of pine trees, sipping little cups of sugary tea as they wait for NATO to give them the all-clear to advance. They are frustrated not to be moving forward but understand that the area ahead of them needs to be kept clear for bombing and missile strikes. "I am sure they know what they are doing," says one of the men, "but I want to sleep at home now!"

These men, like everyone else I speak to, say that they would never accept a cease-fire. They are adamant that Qaddafi will go, maybe this week, maybe next week, but soon. "We will not stop until we reach Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli and catch Qaddafi," says one rebel commander, referring to Qaddafi's Tripoli compound. He is confident that the towns along the way to Tripoli will fall easily, their citizens welcoming the rebel army.

Many people here are happy to talk. They speak faster than I can note down their words, say more than my interpreter can remember. After decades of caution and silence, the words come tumbling out: stories of suffering, tales of repression, wild conspiracy theories about what "he" -- Qaddafi is always "he" -- did in his four decades in power.

There have been other changes. A doctor frets about the violence that infests his children's play, the pictures they draw of snipers and soldiers. The proliferation of small arms is startling. A young boy, no more than 7 or 8, plays with a loaded Kalashnikov, switching off its safety catch. I step into a car to find a pistol under my feet. The driver, a young man no more than 25, retrieves it with a smile and then stuffs it down the back of his trousers. He wears hair gel and designer sunglasses and walks with a swagger. I wonder what will happen when he can no longer carry a gun.

For days, I puzzle over why people wear the wrong photo ID cards. Then I see that the gray-bearded old man who drives me to the hotel and helps me find cars in the morning was once the dark-haired, clean-shaven, middle-aged man in the photo ID he wears on a cord around his neck. I had not thought it possible to age like that in mere months. When he talks about the son he lost, I begin to understand how it might be.

Walking with my interpreter, Osama, in a downtown square of shattered buildings like opened dollhouses, we find what looks like a burned copy of the Green Book, the Qaddafi-penned volume of political philosophy distributed everywhere in Libya. It turns out to be an Italian translation.

Osama is bewildered. "No one could understand the Green Book with Arabic," he muses, "so how could they understand it with Italian?" We ponder this as we trudge on through the rubble, past the tires people burned to make thick black smoke that snipers couldn't see through, past another picnic rug lined with rows of spent bullet cartridges. Empty shell cases dangle above, tied to the fire-blackened railings. Osama looks down solemnly at one of the exhibits and then turns away, shaking his head. "After 40 years," he says to himself, "this is how we will remember him."

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images