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Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Presidential election: It is not Erdoğan's time yet

Deniz Baykal appeared on NTV with something of a threat earlier this afternoon. If the prime minister emerges as a presidential candidate, he said, the CHP will not take part in the vote. His exact words were: "in such a scenario, we will not be standing by as decoration."

The reality of next year's presidential election is that Mr Baykal's party is going to be decoration regardless of who is on the ballot paper. The governing AK party has an overwhelming presence in parliament, just a handful of seats short of the two-thirds majority needed to elect a president in the first two rounds. Even that isn't much of a problem: the rules dictate that if there is no clear winner after the second round, the winning threshold is dropped to a simple majority for the next ballot. That's 276 votes, which the AK party can supply comfortably.

With the mathematics beyond dispute, it really isn't a question of whether the AK party will win, but rather with whom. Prime ministers have certainly become presidents before - look no further than Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel - which suggests Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the most obvious candidate. But it does not necessarily mean he is the right candidate.

Turgut Özal was a remarkable prime minister. He was not a remarkable president. Visibly frustrated by his former party's defeat in the 1991 general election, he never bridged the gap with the victors, the party of longtime rival Süleyman Demirel. Before his untimely death, Özal had a firm vision of what direction Turkey should take forward. It was a vision suited to a prime minister, a man accountable to the general public, but not to a president who serves only as a final check on parliament.

For all his faults - and there are many - Mr Erdoğan too is a competent politician. He has done more to encourage reform, challenge state taboos and raise living standards than any other politician since Özal. But that does not mean he has the indeterminate qualities needed in a head of state. The president is a unifying figure, a statesmanlike individual who embodies all aspects of the country and represents it at home and abroad. Mr Erdoğan is no statesman. Like Özal twenty years before him, he does not have the experience. He has been in national politics for barely half a decade - again, not unlike Özal.

But brushing aside vague ideals of statesmanship, the Turkish constitution offers a far more concrete obstacle in front of Mr Erdoğan's candidacy: impartiality. "Upon election," the constitution reads, "the president must sever all ties with his party." It is one thing to tear up a membership card - like they did with Özal's Anavatan party membership - but actually severing those ties altogether is another matter. At this difficult time in Turkish politics, it will be immensely difficult for Mr Erdoğan to prove he is a Turkish president and not an AK president. And while the electorate might be happy to give him a chance, the state establishment will not.

The Turkish presidency has been ailing for decades. It is the office of a distant figure, disconnected from the public, a man who lives in a high security base in south Ankara and vetoes laws. These were problems less noticeable when the position was occupied by a prominent individual - say, a prime minister or an army chief. But when the post was taken by Ahmet Necdet Sezer, an obscure judge, the presidency was exposed as nothing short of elitist.

The way to change that is to make the president more endearing to the public, by letting the public elect him directly. Despite calls from the opposition, it is unlikely there will be a direct presidential election this time around. Far more likely is for a president to be directly elected in 2014, after Mr Sezer's successor.

In the meantime, someone must be found to become that successor. The candidate must have experience (which rules out Mr Erdoğan for now), he must be known by the public (which, it is hoped, will deter the election of another judge), and he must be liked by the public (which is Mr Baykal's come-uppance). But in these times of political polarisation, the candidate must also not be deeply infused in party politics.

It is time for both parties to nominate - and endorse - Hikmet Çetin to become Turkey's 11th president. Mr Çetin has formerly been foreign minister, deputy prime minister, CHP leader and parliament speaker. He left domestic politics to serve as NATO's highest civilian representative in Afghanistan for two terms, and returned in August of this year. He has never been endearingly close to Mr Erdoğan, but there has not been much love lost with Mr Baykal either.

Hikmet Çetin is a capable, experienced statesman, and the most suitable candidate for Turkey's next president. By nominating Mr Çetin now, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would not only intercept Mr Baykal's cheap threats of withdrawal, but also establish himself as the man who had the opportunity to rise to the top, and decided to wait. He is not an old man, and 2014 is only seven years away.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

How skipping Antalya could help solve the Cyprus problem

Tony Blair was in Ankara yesterday to offer Britain's support at a time when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's case for Turkey's EU membership has never looked quite as bleak. The visit came as the EU confirmed eight chapters of Turkey's entry negotiations would be suspended in response to Turkey's staunch refusal to open up to Cyprus. There is little hope of those chapters - or indeed of other unrelated topics, such as Education and culture - being opened anytime soon.

Mr Erdoğan needed a boost in the face of growing EU antagonism at home, and that boost came in the form of a direct acknowledgement from Mr Blair that Britain was looking into - and had therefore not automatically rejected - a Cyprus Turkish Airlines request to fly directly to the UK. Mr Blair said he personally supported the idea, and that they were looking into the legalities of starting direct flights.

As it stands, the only planes flying out of Ercan Airport go to Turkey. There are flights to places such as Britain and Germany, but these legally have to call at a Turkish airport - usually Antalya - before proceeding on to their final destination. Save a few token flights to Azerbaijan, there have been no other flights out of North Cyprus since the trade embargo was first placed in the 1970s.

Tourism is Northern Cyprus's largest source of income - even now, when the only route of entry is via Turkey, it overtakes agriculture. This was the principal reason behind Turkey's insistence on opening more than just a single seaport in the north: it is, after all, far easier to bring the tourists in by air.

If Britain's civil aviation authorities approve the Turkish Cypriot request, it would start the first direct flights between North Cyprus and Europe in decades. It would pre-empt an EU review of Northern Cyprus planned for the end of January, which looks likely to be vetoed by the (Greek) Cypriot government. It would give a much-needed injection of cash at a time when even EU aid is set to be derailed by a southern veto.

But perhaps most importantly of all, it would demonstrate to the EU that the Cypriot issue is not one that can be solved merely by enforcing existing treaties a month before a summit deadline. It would show that a dedicated push - perhaps the efforts of an entire six-month presidency - is needed to solve the Cyprus issue once and for all.

The next rotating president is Germany, whose foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has promised to personally involve himself in the Cyprus issue. He says he is hopeful the problem can solved by June. His optimism provides little reassurance, but what else can be done but hope?

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Reforming Republican People

Copyright Circassian Canada, 2006Deniz Baykal is an excellent director. He must be. He is a man who can craft, and weld, and manoeuvre. Surely that makes him excellent politician. How else can you explain the 13-year leadership of Turkey's most sacred political party by a man so incredibly disliked?

Deniz Baykal was only the fourth leader of the 69-year-old Republican People's Party (CHP) when he first took the helm in 1992. He resigned twice, first in the wake of an impending merger with the Social Democrat People's Party (SHP) and later after an embarrassing showing in the 1999 elections. But in each case he returned to defeat his successor. It amounts to a cumulative thirteen years as leader.

In the summer of 2002, when hordes of MPs resigned Bülent Ecevit's governing party and triggered yet another crisis in the Turkish left, Mr Baykal saw the opportunity to rebuild his position. He persuaded countless former Ecevitites to switch to the CHP, knocking the wind out of Ismail Cem's attempts to establish a new political force on the left wing. He also scored a big coup in Kemal Derviş, the man credited with resuscitating Turkey after the latest economic crisis, by snatching him away from Mr Cem's clutches.

His tactics worked. When the election came, the country was far too distracted by the prospect of a single party government - and an Islamist one, at that - to notice the CHP's showing. Ataturk's party was back with 178 seats. It was their best result in thirty years.

The result was a personal victory for Mr Baykal, propelling him into a position more influential than when he was deputy prime minister a decade ago. He had become the de facto leader of the secular Turkish left in the face of a resurgent religious threat. He is no longer that leader.

Mr Baykal's failure is partly because he is not an endearing man. He is staggeringly unpopular, especially among secularist Turks who say they vote for him because he is the only viable challenger to the AKP. He is a man driven by his ideology, unable to empathise with the average voter. He is, in fact, a member of that "old guard" of Turkish politics - among the likes of Bülent Ecevit, Mesut Yılmaz and Tansu Çiller - that was purged in the 2002 election. The reason Mr Baykal survived is because he is not as well-known.

But there is more to it than personality. If Mr Baykal's pre-election resurgence was shrewd and calculated, his post-election performance was rash and tactless. He failed to recognise that his party's return to parliament was not from an electorate endorsing his policies, but from part of an electorate worried about an Islamic future. The CHP was not the party of choice, it was the only choice.

Deniz Baykal has done little since to consolidate his party's position. He has not pushed hard enough to unify the Turkish centre-left. He has not made a serious attempt to endear himself to the voting public. He has even lost his badge as leader of Turkey's Kemalists. That title is now shared by Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the president who has vetoed more parliamentary laws than any other in Turkish history, and General Yaşar Büyükanıt, the chief of the army.

The CHP has paid for Mr Baykal's mistakes already. His party performed badly in the 2004 local elections, losing council seats nationwide and barely holding onto traditional strongholds like Ankara's Çankaya district. Mr Baykal, however, refused to accept a defeat, prompting a bemused Radikal headline: "CHP wins victory - apparently".

The downward trend looks set to continue, too. Opinion polls ahead of next November's general election all suggest the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) will return to parliament. But the resurgent nationalist vote, it seems, will not be at the expense of the governing AKP, but of the CHP.

Deniz Baykal has to go, and he has to go soon. But who to come in his place?

There have been mutterings of President Sezer joining active politics. There is, though, a far more sensible replacement in Ismail Cem, who still commands a certain degree of respect in Turkey. He joined the CHP two years ago after his new party experiment failed. When it comes to dismissing Mr Baykal, however, the only solution might be to field him as the compromise successor - to Mr Sezer.

Image © Copyright Circassian Canada, 2006.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Erdoğan to meet Pope (at baggage reclaim?)

Thousands of people were in Istanbul's Cağlayan neighbourhood today to protest Pope Benedict XVI, who is due in Turkey in Tuesday. There was widespread booing, quite a lot of flag-waving, and many women turned up wearing headscarves and bandanas, clutching bemused babies. It was all organised by the Felicity Party (SP), the successor to the Welfare and Virtue parties that were closed down over the last ten years.

In his frail state, former party leader and prime minister Necmettin Erbakan made an appearance via videolink to say he had no doubt the Pope was coming to resurrect Byzantium in Turkey. Other party officials egged on chants along the lines of "Don't turn the Hagia Sophia back into a church", as current SP leader Recai Kutan spoke out against the European Union.

Security was high at the demonstration, as anyone not carrying SP credentials had their banners confiscated. It did not go unnoticed either that separate protest areas had been allocated for men and women. It was a rather large gathering, with participants from all over the country. It caught the international headlines too - the BBC went with "Turkish protests at Pope's visit" while CNN said 20,000 people attended.

All in all though, it was a rather minor protest from what has become a fringe party. Benedict XVI's visit - a first papal visit to Turkey in many a year - is set to go ahead from Tuesday, and the good news is that he might just meet the sitting prime minister after all. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had earlier made his excuses for not meeting the Pope, pointing to the schedule clash with a NATO summit in Latvia.

It was slated by domestic commentators as a convenient excuse from a man with a history in political Islam. In its leading article tomorrow, The Times calls it a "snub". But in an eleventh hour rescue, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül announced the Pope's timetable had shifted forward, and the two are likely to meet at Ankara airport after all. It sends out a positive signal - far from avoiding the Pope, Mr Erdoğan's government has worked to make a meeting, albeit a short one, possible.

"As a government we see the visit as an opportunity," said Mr Gül. "There are many misconceptions about Turkey, but Turkey is a country where tolerance occurs. We hope the visit helps dispel some of the misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians."

The tension that so clearly exists over the upcoming visit has not been helped by Pope Benedict himself, and the lack of forethought over his words for which he becoming notorious. Aside from his controversial Bavarian lecture in September, Benedict XVI managed recently to reiterate his views against Turkey's EU membership, and several Turkish newspapers have him saying at this Sunday's mass that his visit to Istanbul is "another crusade". Ho-hum.

There's a lot hanging on this next week, and the The Times's leading article is absolutely right: to achieve (it all) against a background of rising Muslim suspicion will demand all Benedict's tact, adroitness and humility.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

So they chanted slogans. Who cares?

The following was written on an easyJet flight from Istanbul on Sunday 12th November 2006, the day after Bülent Ecevit's funeral in Ankara. My apologies about the recent break - normal service has been resumed!

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was visibly annoyed after his party's general conference yesterday, having spent the morning with a hundred thousand people who really don't like him. He was at the funeral of his immediate predecessor, Bülent Ecevit, a man so staunchly secular that when a woman MP dared to enter parliament wearing a headscarf in 1999, television pictures were able to pick up his trademark moustache quivering violently. "Nobody interferes in a woman's choice of dress in her private life," he had thundered from the podium, "but this is no private residence. This is the state's most supreme institution. Please inform this woman of her limits."

Mr Erdoğan, conversely, is everything Mr Ecevit was not, and the funeral crowd knew it. "Turkey is secular, it will remain secular" they chanted all day long, occasionally swapping "Turkey" for "The President" to make a dig at Mr Erdoğan's supposed hopes for the country's top job. It certainly wasn't what he wanted to do with his Saturday morning - his party conference was just a few hours later, after all - but as sitting prime minister it was his duty to go.

When he did finally get to the sports hall hosting his party conference, he found no flag-waving crowds cheering his second unopposed election as leader of the AK party; instead, his audience was subdued and miserable. The entertainers failed to impress, and Mr Erdoğan even had to ask the crowd to cheer up and shout a little more. You could be forgiven for thinking it was all part of the funeral.

Clearly, having conference and funeral on the same day was not a good idea. But Mr Erdoğan wasn't about to shift an already much-delayed party conference, and his efforts to persuade Mrs Ecevit to choose an earlier date proved unsuccessful.

He did respond to the crowd's slogans ("Are you saying that there is someone behaving outside [the bounds of secularism]?") and he did try to set his party's agenda ("We will base our politics on the social centre ground, without repeating history's mistake of swinging to the fringes") but it was really the secularism movement in town that stole the front pages.

Given the massive funeral attendance, it is easy to slate the prime minister's influence, saying the walls are closing in and the AKP is set to lose power in next year's general election. A hundred thousand is a huge figure, yes, but it is tiny next to Turkey's population of 70 million. Not all of the country agrees with yesterday's funeralgoers. It was indeed a bad day for the prime minister, to quote Radikal commentator Murat Yetkin, but it certainly wasn't his end.

As Mr Yetkin wrote just a few days previously, the AKP remains the only one of Turkey's four political ideologies to have broken from its past and embraced the new. Mr Erdoğan and his followers separated from the near-extremist politics of Necmettin Erbakan to create a party that campaigned not on a religious platform but one that understood the electorate. Of the other three ideologies, the centre-left remains bullishly split between Deniz Baykal's CHP, Murat Karayalçın's SHP and Mr Ecevit's former party, the DSP; the centre-right is composed of a True Path Party (DYP) and a Motherland Party (Anavatan) that have spent the last twenty years insisting they are not essentially the same thing; while the extreme right has shown itself to be very good at preaching nationalism, but not so effective in government.

Only the AKP has demonstrated it can put voters before ideology, and the voters have in return made it the largest governing party Turkey has seen since the 1950s. They are likely to do so again next year, if the opinion polls are to be believed.

Yesterday's funeral was not the beginning of the end for Mr Erdoğan; it was the cry of a political class that is out of touch, but has yet to realise it.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

As the progress report looms...

In a matter of hours, the European Commission will release its latest progress report on Turkey. It seems likely the Commission will criticise Turkey in its strongest language yet, particularly on the matters of Cyprus, Article 301 and human rights. The report will stop short, says NTVMSNBC, of recommending a halt or suspension of membership talks.

The contentious matter of Cypriot access to Turkish ports will be left to a summit of EU leaders to be held in the middle of December. This gives Finland, as term president of the Union, the opportunity to push forward its plans for a solution in Cyprus. They are the likeliest leaders yet to coin a solution - they have, after all, done more to solve the Cyprus issue than anyone since Kofi Annan and his ill-fated plan of 2004.

On the matter of Article 301, it is now too late to change any laws in time for the EU report. But Prime Minister Erdoğan has publicly said a change is necessary, and has called for concrete suggestions on how best to do it.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül appeared to be comfortable as he spoke Can Dündar on NTV last night. He said talk of a crisis was simply sensationalism, and pointed to the important steps Turkey had taken thus far.

One interesting point was his insistence that the government was well aware of its responsibilities to the EU. This is a point so easy to overlook: after all, Turkey can hardly be accused of neglecting the EU issue. It is not a Serbia, nor indeed a Croatia. Turkey and Europe are well aware of what each side wants of the other; where they disagree is over whose terms come first.

The focus of Turkey-EU relations now should not be the upcoming progress report, but what will happen after it. There is a month of serious negotiating ahead, and much more than Turkey's EU membership depends on it.

Monday, 6 November 2006

A dove takes flight

Copyright Hürriyet archives, 2006Bülent Ecevit, poet, journalist, and five times prime minister, died last night after a six-month coma. He was 81. Succeeded by his wife, Rahşan Ecevit, and his now greatly diminished Democratic Left Party, he leaves behind perhaps the greatest career in Turkish politics since Atatürk.

His tragedy is that he will be remembered not for his achievements, of which there were many, but for the disasters that occurred during his time in power. In 1974, during his first tensure as prime minster, it was he who ordered the invasion of Cyprus by Turkish troops in response to a Greek-backed coup. He resigned shortly afterwards in an attempt to take his rocketing domestic popularity to an election, but was surprisingly not granted a request to dissolve parliament. Instead, his staunch rival Süleyman Demirel became prime minister. Condemned to oppositon, he was held responsible for the poverty and isolation that struck Turkey as a result of international sanctions.

He returned to office several times after 1977, but was not in office at the time of the 1980 military coup. He was imprisoned and banned from politics all the same, his Republican Left Party (CHP) closed down along with all others. But he continued his political life nonetheless through his wife, launching a new party, the Democratic Left Party (DSP). When his suspension expired, he took the helm himself, refusing calls to merge with a reinvigorated CHP. In the medium term, it turned out to be a shrewd move: while the CHP did quickly return to power in coalition led by Demirel in the early 1990s, it was the DSP who won power in 1999, with Ecevit back in charge after twenty years.

His last term in power was not a happy one. Disaster first struck in August 1999 with a devastating earthquake in northwestern Turkey. Over 20,000 people died in what was considered the country's richest, most properous region. And in 2001, an infamous row with the Turkish president triggered one of the worst economic crises in the country's history. The economy shrank by 10 percent, tens of thousands of jobs were lost, countless more savings rendered worthless. It was a crisis from which he would never recover; his refusal to resign over health grounds in 2002 was simply the last straw.

By dismissing any chance of left-wing unity and campaigning instead as a leader not tainted by corruption, Ecevit did secure his return to power. But his failure to tackle corruption while in power, and his refusal to accept a left coalition even in the wake of an electoral threat from the mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party was to be his downfall. The CHP was returned to parliament as the main opposition; the DSP became little but a fringe party.

But Bülent Ecevit is unjustly associated with shame alone, whereas his achievements were many and will largely go unrecognised. It was he who managed to defy what was in effect the theocracy of Ismet Inönü, toppling Atatürk's ailing right-hand man in a leadership contest in 1973. Despite the disasters that shook his terms in power, he managed to maintain an honest personal image, with his trademark black cap and refusal to be driven around in anything more glamourous than a Renault Safrane. Even President Sezer, the other half of that blistering row in 2001, today praised his politeness. "He was an example," Mr Sezer said, "with his democratic position and intellectual indentity".

Turkey woke up today to newspapers carrying the same picture, that of Ecevit holding a white dove at an election rally. The dove, a universal symbol of purity, was the symbol of his party and the symbol associated with his character. "A dove takes flight" was Hürriyet's headline, Vatan went with the splash "Goodbye, Karaoğlan", using Ecevit's popular nickname.

The head of Radikal's Ankara desk, Murat Yetkin, was on NTV a little while ago, calling him "one of the four or five greatest figures in Turkish history, alongside Atatürk and İnönü and Demirel". There are few who could disagree with that. The legacy may still be in contention, but there's no denying a legend left this world last night.

Bülent Ecevit, former Turkish prime minister. Born May 28 1925, died November 5th 2006.

Image © Copyright Hürriyet archives, 2006.

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Election 2007: Early beginnings

"Hustings" is a British term used to describe those political activities and speeches that are made before an election - the ones meant to bring in the votes. It isn't a term used very often outside of the UK, but its definition applies very well to what's happening in Turkey at the moment.

It all began with something Mehmet Ağar said last week. During a visit to the southeast, the True Path Party (DYP) leader said that PKK members should be doing politics on the plains rather than roaming the mountains with guns. When asked by Sabah whether this was a call for an amnesty, Mr Ağar said "if necessary, yes".

Mr Ağar's suggestion is interesting and worthy of a national debate at the very least. It did not go unnoticed that his words were cautiously supported by the government. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül pointed out that Mr Ağar was a former interior minister and had experience in such affairs, and said "his words should be carefully read".

But those words provoked a fierce backlash from nationalist circles. The new army chief Yaşar Büyükanıt violently condemned his words, while the news website 8sütun screamed: "Ağar wants to forgive the terrorists!" The response from the political arena was quite the same. Anavatan leader Erkan Mumcu said it was "an attempt to form a government at the next election that will act as a patron over the Kurdish state in Iraq". Even Recai Kutan, leader of the religious Felicity Party (SP), said Mr Ağar had suggested negotiations with terrorists. Mr Kutan was also careful to dismiss rumours of a post-election coalition with the DYP.

Mehmet Ağar's words came a matter of days after the date for the next general election was finally set: November 4th, 2007. That may well be a year away, but opposition parties know perfectly well that they have some serious catching up to do if they want to re-enter parliament, let alone government. Four years on from its landslide victory, the governing AKP is slightly weakened, but still commands by far the largest bulk of support nationwide.

A number of parties have used the recent resurgence in Turkish nationalism to boost their popularity, trampling on ground traditionaly occupied by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Being nationalist is not a particularly difficult thing to do. "The EU is out to destroy us," you can say, with dashes of "Cyprus is slipping away from under our very noses" and "the government wants to legalise the insulting of Turkishness". It's easy stuff really. The thinking is you can't go wrong with belting a few nationalist sentiments here and there, and all the opposition parties have therefore tried it. It is why Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition CHP, finally got around yesterday to criticising Mehmet Ağar. After all, doesn't the man want to forgive terrorists?

But publicly worshiping Turkishness will only get you so far in the eyes of the electorate, and Mehmet Ağar's recent actions suggest he is aware of that. By going to the predominantly Kurdish southeast and talking openly about negotiating with PKK members, he has joined the select few who have publicly advocated more politics and less military in the region. If he sticks to his position without submitting to the initial fierce backlash, it will win him support among Kurds desperate for a lasting solution, and perhaps some forward-thinking Turks too.

With 382 days to go, the hustings have already begun.

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Armenia: French bills and Nobel laureates

There is some strange, twisted irony in the fact that France's parliament passed a bill outlawing genocide denial on the same day that the Nobel prize in literature went to Orhan Pamuk, a man who himself went on trial for saying genocide did happen.

The French bill was passed by an overwhelming majority - 106 votes to 19 - after weeks of often fierce debate on the issue. It provides for a €45,000 fine and one-year prison term for anyone who denies a genocide of the Armenians. This puts it on a par with sanctions for denying the Jewish Holocaust, which is already law in France.

Note that the Armenian legislation has not passed into law yet. It needs approval first from the French senate, then from the president before that can happen. But in a country where elections are but a year away and Turkey's EU membership is one of the top campaign issues, it is not clear if either senate or president will go so far as to put freedom of speech before national interest.

If there is no veto, it will be France that suffers more than anyone, particularly as Turkish leaders have already threatened to block French companies from business ventures in Turkey. And the trial of anyone charged under the new legislation would attract wide media coverage, not unlike the trial of a British historian tried and sentenced in Austria last year for holocaust denial.

But for all its injustice, the potential law could have positive effects too. There is greater talk today than ever before about a meeting of Turkish and Armenian historians to unearth the truth of what happened in eastern Anatolia more than ninety years ago. Just this week, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said (in reference to the French bill), "You cannot clean dirt with dirt; you can only clean dirt with clean water." The focus of that statement should be not the fact that he likens the French bill to dirt, but that he acknowledges there is dirt that needs to be cleaned up in the first place. For the Turkish political elite, this is a great step in the right direction. The next step must be abolishing Article 301 of the penal code.

Just under twenty minutes ago, Orhan Pamuk became a Nobel laureate for literature. The Swedish academy awarding the prize said that "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city (he) has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures." It is a remarkable achievement for a man who champions the cause of freedom of speech.

Congratulations to Orhan Pamuk. He has done himself proud, he has done Turkey proud. Now Turkey should recognise what he stands for.

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Armenia: New cards at play

Turkey has made a historic concession to Armenia, the neighbour it does not recognise, during secret talks in Vienna, according to CNN Turk reporter Barçın Yinanç. She says in her blog entry that the Turks have stopped demanding a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute before diplomatic relations are established. The two countries are now on track to setting up a high commission to look into relations between them. "It is an important step that could be considered historic," says Ms Yinanç. But is it really that?

Turkey was the first country to recognise Armenia when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Things faltered after that; diplomatic relations never really got off the ground, and while Turkish embassies sprung up in nearby former Soviet republics like Azerbaijan and Georgia, relations with Armenia remained unofficial. When war broke out in 1994 between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey sealed shut its 268km border with Armenia. Azerbaijan did the same.

Neither border has opened since, and it has been Armenia that suffered most. The country is hopelessly poor. Its only realistic avenue for trade with the west is through a small border with Georgia, hundreds of kilometres north of the capital.

In the 12 years since the border was sealed, the Armenians missed out on the opportunity to be a corridor for one of the largest oil pipelines outside of Russia and the Middle East. The pipeline in question goes from Azerbaijan to southern Turkey via Georgia; taking it through Armenia would have been a far more sensible route, and cheaper too. Think of the millions of dollars that could have resuscitated their economy. All because a closed gate.

With the situation as gridlocked as it is, it is interesting that the Turks seemingly blinked first yesterday. They have always had the upper ground: sure, the closed frontier does not help the regional economy in eastern Turkey, but the effect on the country's national economy is small, and the enthusiasm to resolve the dispute has consequently been smaller still. So why the concession?

It might be a case of preemptive action. See, for all their weaknesses, the Armenians have one powerful bargaining chip - that of a potential genocide in 1915. The facts are disputed; the Armenians say it was part of a centuries-long conspiracy to eliminate their kind in Ottoman Turkey, the Turks deny it with arguments that range from "it didn't happen" to "we didn't do it". Armenia's influential diaspora has exploited it abroad to considerable success over the years, be it with Canada's recognition of the events as genocide or French motions making it an offence to deny it ever happened. But it wasn't really until talk popped up of including genocide recognition in Turkey's EU accession talks that the diaspora began to pose a serious diplomatic threat.

Perhaps Turkish authorities are beginning to see that the diaspora can make things even more uncomfortable for them. Perhaps they see that Armenia can no longer be ingored. Perhaps they are aware that a stricter definition of their position over the massacre - or genocide, or non-entity, or whatever - might be needed very soon.

Yesterday's Turkish concession is actually tiny. With it, they have simply agreed to meet and talk about the possibility of meeting again, perhaps that time with someone keeping the minutes. That means little on its own. But it might be the starting point for a greater concession, an admission of the vaguest sort that something horrible happened 91 years ago. Now that would be historic.

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Southeast Turkey: Ceasing fire. Again.

Speculation has been mounting that the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, is on the verge of unilaterally declaring a ceasefire. Kurdish political figures in Turkey and Iraq's president have both called for it, and they were joined earlier today by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in a Turkish prison for seven years but still remains an influential figure among many Kurdish militants.

An end to the bombing is of course what any sane person would want. It might even be the only course of action left to the PKK; it lost what little sympathy it had over the summer when it blew up minibuses in Turkish tourist resorts or bombed bus stops in Kurdish towns. What is less clear is whether this ceasefire will last.

There have been two PKK ceasefires before. The first was announced by Ocalan himself in 1993, while he was still riding high in Lebanon, while the second was immediately after his capture six years later. The latter of these held for a few years into the new century, until fighters declared the government hadn't done enough to increase the rights of Kurds in Turkey.

In a way, the fighters were right. 'Enough' had not been done - it was after all only with EU-orientated reforms that such changes as Kurdish broadcasting were grudgingly introduced. But where the fighters were wrong, so desperately wrong, was in their choice to resort to violence again. Since then there have been countless bomb attacks on police stations and military outposts. Tens of soldiers and officers were killed, with each death helping to fuel a resurgence in Turkish nationalism.

There is nervous talk of offering an amnesty to some PKK leaders, including Öcalan, in return for an end to the bombing. Nervous, because no Turkish political leader would ever openly advocate it. But there are some both in government and opposition who privately accept it is the only way to end the bloodshed. Those same people have come to accept that Turkey's Kurdish population should be further embraced, not distanced, as a result of PKK militancy.

There are of course circles that would be outraged at the mere idea of talks of any kind with the PKK. But even Turkish generals have admitted that the PKK threat cannot be elimated by purely military means. Öcalan is far too high profile to ever be released from his prison island in the country's northwest, but other wanted militants aren't. If allowing them back to their homes in southeastern Turkey will stop the attacks, then so be it. It is not as if those militants would suddenly be living in full liberty; more likely they'll be watched by the state from a certain distance for the rest of their lives. But if it stops the killing, then it has to be done. And if the PKK is on the verge of declaring a ceasefire, then that is precisely what has happened.

Thursday, 21 September 2006

Article 301: Victory, but beware the nationalist

It took forty minutes at an Istanbul court to acquit Elif Şafak of all charges against her, and this without the defendant even having to set foot in court. The judges dismissed the case because "the legal components of the offence had not been established" - or, to put it simply, the prosecution could not prove Elif Şafak had broken the law.

It means that yet another case has fallen through one of the gaping holes in Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. Save the case of Hrant Dink, who was given a delayed prison sentence, no trial has reached a successful conclusion. Surely this means the law is not watertight? Surely this means it should go?

This evening, the prime minister welcomed the ruling and finally gave way: "We can sit down and talk (about Article 301), just so long as government and opposition reaches some kind of consensus." CHP leader Deniz Baykal made an attempt, of sorts, to jump on the bandwagon; when asked whether the article should change, he responded with a question: "Does the problem come from the article, or the application of the article?"

The answer to Mr Baykal's question is "both". Though despite his less than clear response to today's ruling, opposition party sources in Ankara were saying tonight that they would consider supporting a change.

But nothing is ever black and white, and Nazif İflazoğlu in today's Radikal went some way to show that the AKP might not have been entirely driven by a stubborn desire to protect the apparent sanctity of Turkishness. It seems there are fears that by scraping the article, the AKP will have served a strong campaign issue straight into the hands of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) ahead of next year's general election. "The government has permitted the freedom to insult Turkishness", the MHP will be able to cry. The government's concern is that such a line of campaigning will go down rather well in rural parts of the country, at the AKP's expense.

Their concern is a legitimate one. The MHP is not an unpopular party; they were a partner in government until 2002, when they failed to cross the election barrier and enter parliament. While there was widespread relief at having kept the extreme right wing out of parliament, many overlooked the fact that the nationalist vote was split almost equally between the MHP and the Youth Party, the latter of which has since become a non-entity. Their combined share of the vote is 15 percent, which - had they been united - would have placed them comfortably behind the CHP as parliament's third party.

Regardless of whether the election barrier falls, the MHP will almost certainly re-enter parliament in 2007. Article 301 could help them even further.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Article 301: Cracks in the AKP?

It seems Abdullah Gül, the foreign minister, has conceded Article 301* of the Turkish Penal Code could change. "If there is no violence behind a thought," he said yesterday in New York, "then we are in favour of that thought being expressed".

His words follow up on those of Ali Babacan, the chief EU negotiator, but clash with those of Cemil Çiçek, the government spokesman. Speaking before parliament met today to discuss urgent EU reforms, Mr Çiçek said again that Article 301 was not on their agenda. Radikal today picked up on the differences of opinion with the headline "Cracks in AKP over 301". The prime minister, it seems, is also against changing the law.

But the government's voice is not one of unity on the matter. State Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin has admitted that "it would be easier" if the courts did not produce "conflicting rulings" on cases of 301. He's suggested waiting a little more to see what the Court of Appeals has to say.

Except time is not something the government has. Tomorrow begins the trial of Elif Şafak, author of "The Bastard of Istanbul", a rather controversial title that has not gone down well among the hawks of Turkishness waiting for a sign of blasphemy. Ms Şafak herself will not be present on the opening day, but all the same it will be closely watched by the media. An EU delegation headed by Joost Lagendijk, the head of the EU-Turkey Joint Commission, will be there as well. And the Istanbul governor has said there will be extra security precautions in place to avoid a repeat of the scenes outside Orhan Pamuk's trial in December.

Tomorrow might not find as much international coverage on the scale of Mr Pamuk's abortive case, but the urgency is ever greater. The opposition CHP has said the article should be changed so that it creates "no further problems". The EU has taken things a step further, insisting it be scrapped completely.

It will take two weeks before parliament can even discuss the law, which is why a shift in government position is needed now. With a critical progress report from the EU on the horizon, a modified Article 301 could be just the small symbol of readiness for change that Turkey needs.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Formula One: A deserved punishment

The governing body of Formula One, FIA, fined Turkey $5 million this afternoon for using the president of a country that doesn't exist* to present a trophy to the winner of this year's Turkish Grand Prix. TOSFED, the Turkish Motorsport Federation, will be footing the fine; it is a fine they deserve, and they should be grateful the race itself wasn't pulled completely from the F1 calendar.

TOSFED have yet to react to the ruling, although their website does contain a feeble explanation about why President Talat was used to present the award in the first place. "When a country's president or prime minister, or the FIA president, are unavailable, the host country invites either a figure who represents them or an individual of international stature. In line with these conditions, our organisers MSO invited Mehmet Ali Talat."

Some might call that a fair argument. But it doesn't quite check in with the words of Rıfat Hisarcıklıoğlu, chairman of a major MSO shareholder, who unashamedly said, "if we are fined, we'll pay it. The promotion of (North) Cyprus is far more important for us."

Many people in Turkey, of course, think five million dollars is worth paying for a victory over the Greek Cypriots. But a sizeable contingent is not waving the flag of nationalism. The government, for one, has stood well away - when asked for his response to Mr Hiscıklıoğlu's words, state minister Mehmet Ali Şahin refused to comment.

There is also anger among members of the Istanbul Chamber of Trade, another major MSO shareholder. Writing on the NTVMSNBC website, Kerim Suner said, "I think the fine should be paid by those who came up with the idea. I pay my membership fee to the chamber every year. I am against my fees being used to pay off this fine."

Turkey has escaped with minimum damage from a diplomatic stunt they knew was provocative. I still have to ask - was it all worth it?

Monday, 18 September 2006

The Pope, and whether he has a big mouth

So a man who leads a branch of the largest religion in the world quotes something said by some emperor six hundred years ago and manages to offend followers of the world's second largest religion in the process. Is that an accurate summary?

Pope Benedict XVI would probably not have expected such a ferious response to his lecture as he stood up to deliver it at the University of Regensburg, in the German state of Bavaria. He's been compared to Hitler and Mussolini, he's had effigies of himself burned, and several churches in the Middle East have been attacked. Yesterday, an Italian nun living in Somalia was shot in the back and killed. So far, the backlash has not reached the levels of demonstrations against Danish cartoonists earlier this year, although the risk has been there.

I read a copy of the lecture on Saturday, soon after the story of the first protests broke, and although I did not have a chance to update this blog at the time, I do remember thinking that the Pope's words had been misunderstood. Yes, he does quote a Byzantine emperor who says that the Prophet Mohammed's teachings are "evil and inhuman". And yes, the rest of the lecture does consider the matter of spreading faith by force. But just as importantly, he never does say that he agrees with the Emperor's words. I would wager that protestors in India or angry AKP politicians in Turkey had hardly read the quotation, let alone the entire speech.

The Pope did make a mistake by failing to make a clear distinction between the thoughts of Emperor Manuel II and those of his own. He has since apologised through a statement, and then in person, for the mistake and for the reaction it caused. He needs to make no further apology for daring to discuss the matter of spreading faith through violence. It would help though if he visited a mosque when he comes to Turkey in November.

In Turkey, there has been some genuine anger, but many have taken the opportunity to use the backlash for political gain. Yestrday, True Path Party (DYP) demonstrators appeared outside Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara with a banner reading "Easy to be the Pope, Hard to be the Human", as foreign press cameras clicked away. The Pope's words were condemned by Deniz Baykal, the CHP leader, and Mehmet Agar, the DYP leader, as well. It's funny how staunchly secular parties have suddenly jumped on the religion bandwagon.

But it was Salih Kapusuz, the head of the AKP paraliamentary group, who rocketed to international attention as the face of Turkey's reaction when he compared Benedict XVI to the first fascist dictators that sprang to mind. His words were lapped up by an eager foreign press - "angry words from a high ranking Turkish official", they cried. Mr Kapusuz is no such thing, and in his full statement he said the Pope's "insolent words" had shown he was ignorant and had "a mentality left behind from the darkness of the Middle Ages". He was livid, and clearly had no idea that simply by using Hitler's name he would catapult himself into the pages of every broadsheet in the West.

Response from the higher levels have government has been far more measured. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday thtthe Pope had made "an unfortunate statement" and should apologise, while foreign minister Abdullah Gül confirmed November's papal visit would not be called off. It is a commendable response, one that showed there are people in govenment who understand that running amok will do them no favours, however offended they might be.

I won't call the last few days a PR victory for Turkey, but it could have been a lot worse. Imagine if Mr Kapusuz was prime minister.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Article 301: Release Michael Dickinson

This is the image that landed Michael Dickinson in police custody in Istanbul yesterday. The British artist unfurled the banner while demonstrating outside the trial of an anti-war activist charged with displaying similar images of the prime minister. He refused to put it away when approached by police.

Mr Dickinson is charged with "insulting the prime minister's dignity", an old chestnut from Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. It is this article that makes it a criminal offence to insult "Turkishness". It is this article that has spawned nearly 70 trials against apparent enemies of the state.

Having lived in this country for twenty years, Michael Dickinson will have been fully aware of how individuals in Turkey do not enjoy civil liberties at the degree they do in, say, his native homeland. The moment his banner was unveiled, he would not have expected anything but to be approached by police. Any romantic claims that he is a martyr of free speech are, frankly, rubbish.

His poster might be stupid and immature, but Mr Dickinson certainly does not deserve arrest or trial for it. What the Turkish authorities have failed to understand for decades - and particularly since the law criminalising Turkishness first passed - is that by detaining artists and authors they are doing little else than promote their work.

Orhan Pamuk, for instance, is Turkey's most popular author abroad. His abortive trial last year only helped fuel his image. The cartoon above of President Bush alongside Prime Minister Erdoğan's head on a dog's body appeared in all its glory in today's Guardian. The article goes on to mention how Mr Erdoğan "is believed to have earned at least £115,000 in damages from insult cases" since he first sued a cartoonist for personal damages last year. In Mr Dickinson's homeland, it would be that fortune, and not the cartoons,that are brought into public scrutiny.

Article 301 does not need alteration, nor any kind of public review. It needs to go, plain and simple.

Image © Copyright Michael Dickinson, "Turkey's War on Political Cartoonists, 2005. Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, March 31 2005.

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Southeast Turkey: The bubbling pot

There's something about terrorism involving children that makes my blood boil. It's not that attacks on adults are any less gruesome, but it is an outrageous, filthy, disgusting act to use children to make a violent statement. I remember feeling I had lost all possible sympathy for Chechens after 2004's Beslan siege, when hundreds of schoolchildren were taken hostage. I won't say that I still take such a one-sided approach today, but it does go to show that using children does introduce a numbing, inhuman aspect to any struggle.

Something similar happened in Diyarbakır, southeastern Turkey, earlier this evening. At least seven people were killed when a bomb was detonated at a busy bus stop. 17 people were wounded. Five of the dead were children. Few people doubt that PKK extremists were involved.

Attacks like this one, alongside recent attacks in Mediterranean tourist hotspots and elsewhere in southeastern Turkey, are doing little to help the cause of moderate Kurds in Turkey. The AKP government has so far proven itself far more able than its predecessors in making the vital distinction between a PKK militant and a Kurdish-speaking Turkish citizen. It has also appointed a former general to head a new division dedicated to eliminating the PKK - and crucially, the United States has done precisely the same thing.

But understandably, the response of Turkish public opinion to the attacks has not been as rational. A resurgence of nationalism has swept the country over the past year and a half, deepening divisions that some might never have thought existed. When a Turkish flag was burned during a normally peaceful Kurdish spring festival last year, the public responded by draping every possible window, square, even car bonnets with the star and crescent. This year's shooting of a high court judge involved in a ruling over Muslim headscarves in schools provoked similar nationalist sentiment. And just this week, the prime minister's entourage clashed with supporters of the right wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at a memorial in the northwestern town of Söğüt, triggering a bitter war of words.

The PKK needs to be stopped to prevent further loss of life. The PKK needs to be stopped before the government, as it enters election year 2007, finally succumbs to public opinion and adopts a nationalist policy in the southeast. The consequences for the Kurdish population would be dire.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Troops to Lebanon: An approval

After some fiery political debate, protests on the streets of Ankara and even the occasional scuffle in parliament, Turkey has decided to send troops to Lebanon. It means that up to a thousand soldiers will be sent before the end of the month, probably to the region surrounding the Litani river, 30 kilometres from the Israeli border. 340 MPs voted in favour of sending troops, 192 voted against, while one government MP abstained.

The government's victory might have been easy, but the parliamentary sitting that delivered it last night was anything but. Government ministers were heckled, opposition parties derailed the debate for a few hours over a technicality on speaking times, and a few MPs even threw their briefcases at each other.

The opposition took every possible opportunity to exploit the overwhelming public mood against sending Turkish troops abroad, and were not ashamed to admit it afterwards. CHP leader Deniz Baykal said after the vote: "today's meeting was beneficial in the sense that the public has become aware of the opposition's stance".

This morning's papers were not nearly as outraged as the opposition seemed to be in parliament. Sure, fringe newspapers like the staunchly nationalist Milli Gazete did scream "This is the actual treachery", while Vatan's splash read "None of their children are going to Lebanon". The more reputable secular Cumhuriyet went with "In spite of the people", but aside from these, the outrage in most mainstream papers simply wasn't there. The headline in Posta, the country's most popular, was "An appropriate step to Lebanon". Other newspapers in the influential Doğan Media Group, including Hürryet,Milliyet and Radikal, went with similar leaders. Other pro-government papers quietly reported the result, and said little else.

Opposition parties might have picked up brownie points for uniting to put their weight behind public mood, but the reality is that the anti-war mood will pass. Yesterday's vote will have little effect on AKP poll ratings - after all, it was this same AKP government that supported opening Turkish borders to American troops ahead of the invasion of Iraq, lost the vote in parliament, and went on to sweep the board at local elections the following year. In the meantime, it is important to recognise that Mr Erdoğan's government has taken a difficult decision - but the right decision.

Monday, 28 August 2006

Talat on Formula 1

Having just pipped Fernando Alonso to the chequered flag in Istanbul's Formula 1 Grand Prix, Felipe Massa took to the podium and turned to his right expecting to be handed a strange oval-like prize from one of Turkey's political elite - the prime minister, perhaps? - but instead received the object from some man called Mehmet Ali Talat. Who was he? Anyone important? Did it even matter? Massa had just won his first ever F1 race, he didn't care if Turkey's finest wasn't there to award it to him.

The trouble is, there are some who do care. All of Greek Cyprus, for one. You see, Mehmet Ali Talat is the president of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a country recognised by no-one save Turkey, and Turkish officials seem to have taken the opportunity yesterday to give it a spot of promotion. Mr Talat was identified on-screen as "President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" to two billion viewers in 203 countries. He gave over the deformed trophy and disappeared - it must have been all of thirty seconds, but the Greek Cypriots weren't happy.

Politis used the headline "Talat forced into the presidency". Fileleftheros called it a "provocation with Formula 1 - Turkish officials have used the world's largest sporting organisation to political ends". Greek Cypriot officials have already complained, and Turkey now faces an official warning or even a fine.

They deserve it. Using Mr Talat to present the prize was a cheap and sad ploy, and Turkish officials did it in full knowledge of the reaction it would provoke.

What I fail to understand is the motive - did anyone really think that groups of Formula 1 fans watching across Germany, Singapore or Brazil would really sit up and exclaim, "Eureka! My stance on the Cyprus issue has changed!"? Answers on a postcard, please.

Image © Copyright NTVMSNBC, 2006.

Saturday, 26 August 2006

Troops to Lebanon: a presidential wade-in

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer placed himself firmly in the "no" camp yesterday over the matter of sending Turkish troops to southern Lebanon.

"It is not our job to solve the security problems of others when we have our own internal security issues," he told reporters yesterday. And then he hit back at those who argued, this blog included, that sending troops could only benefit Turkey's international position: "If Turkey is a great state, this image will not be altered whether troops are sent or not."

He said his objection lay in the fact that the upcoming UN force did not have a mandate for humanitarian aid. What is more, he argues, "why should we be in Lebanon while we are not supported in our battle with (the PKK)?"

The government responded through parliament speaker Bülent Arınç: "Sending troops is the government's business. The president has no authority or responsibility at this stage." It's true, too. Under the constitution, parliament can bypass the presidential veto when it comes to such matters as sending troops.

While Mr Sezer is constitutionally entitled to his views as president, it does not make him right. Comparisons with the PKK are simply not relevant, but if they must be made, focus should be on how hundreds more have been killed in Lebanon and Israel than in southeast Turkey over the past month. The upcoming UN force will stop the fighting that has caused those deaths. Turkey will be saving lives simply by being there.

In the meantime, time is running out. The UN says it is now close to receiving all the pledges it needs for a full peacekeeping force - Turkey has yet to promise anything. A parliamentary vote is needed, and quickly.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Sending Turkish troops to Lebanon

Interesting article in today's Sabah:
Foreign Minster Abdullah Gül met the families of the Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah and Hamas during his visit to Israel on Sunday, it has emerged.

During the meeting, the families asked the foreign minister for his help, saying that they simply did not know whether their sons were even alive. Mr Gül promised to do all he could to help.

This is interesting for both domestic and international reasons. On the home front, it should go a little way towards dispelling some of those absurd conspiracy theories about undercover AKP plans to establish an Islamic republic in Turkey. Surely it wouldn't go down too well back home at the hotbed of imminent revolution if the de facto number two of the governing party meets a number of Israeli families out of his own free will?

Conspiracy theories aside (but just for now, these do need to be addressed before long), there is a more substantial, international reason why Mr Gül's meeting is so important. Israel's government is delighted that the closest thing they have to a Muslim ally has taken things to a personal level. They strongly support a Turkish contribution to the upcoming UN peacekeeping force and, according to Sabah, say it wouldn't be too bad if they did a spot of hostage-rescuing too.

If you look just a few inches up on that same newspaper page, you see a wider splash about Syria's support for a prospective Turkish force in southern Lebanon.

Now, if two countries on opposite ends of the spectrum - Israel and Syria - support Turkish presence, surely this is a very strong reason why troops should be sent? Turkey is a unique position: Syria rejects Israeli or American troops in southern Lebanon, Israel rejects troops from any country that does not recognise it, whereas Turkey is one of the few countries that enjoys support from both sides - enthusiastic support, at that.

The AKP government should overcome domestic opposition and pass a bill in parliament that sends a Turkish peacekeeping force to Lebanon. It won't be like the Iraq vote of 2003, when MPs denied US troops entry to Iraq from the north. The benefits this time around are clearly there.

Israeli hopes of a rescue operation may be a bit far-fetched, but the other benefits are not. Sending troops will be good for Turkey and good for the Middle East.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Trying Orhan Pamuk - yes, I daresay?

I spent a hurried few minutes this afternoon in Istanbul's İstiklal street, buying a few CDs ahead of my trip to London in a few days time. I wasn't surprised to see a few demonstrators gathered not too far down from the French Consulate - after all, it was a Sunday afternoon, and the street was as crowded as ever.

I do normally stop for quick chat when I come across them, but today there was no such time for that. As I passed by one young lady, though, she called after me, "Come on, a signature on this petition from you too - Orhan Pamuk should face trial".

I didn't stop to answer. This was not because I was in a hurry, but because I genuinely didn't know what to say. I walked down the street thinking about it. My first reaction was "no, of course he shouldn't be tried, he's done nothing wrong". All he did was tell a Swiss magazine: "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." He was put on trial under that wonderful Article 301, it attracted massive international attention, and it folded before it could get underway. Regardless of whether what he said is true or not, he shouldn't be punished for saying it.

But my opinion changed while the demonstrators were still in earshot. Orhan Pamuk himself had expressed disappointment at how he had not been able to argue his case. The trial did collapse over an obtuse technicality involving the Justice ministry, owing no doubt to the world attention focused on the case. Countless other people including Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin, have been tried and sentenced under the same charges that the judge dismissed for Pamuk.

So by the time I passed the demonstrators again, CDs in hand, I found myself agreeing with them, though not necessarily for the same reasons. Orhan Pamuk should be tried. Orhan Pamuk himself thought he should have been tried. Perhaps he should be tried so that the ineffectiveness of 301 can be laid before the eyes of the world.

Monday, 14 August 2006

Hope is in the air

Bülent Arınç, the speaker of Turkey's parliament, has waded into the discussion over the election threshold. He slated the idea of introducing a threshold for independent MPs, saying it would be "antidemocratic to try and stop an independent candidate from entering parliament". He is absolutely right.

More interesting was his point about the national threshold: "10 percent is too high. Political parties should be represented in parliament according to their share of the vote."

These are encouraging words from a man who, while not quite AKP leader, is ranked above the prime minister in Turkish hierarchy, and is second only to the president. His words contrast those of the PM (see yesterday's entry) and suggest that, rather than there being a rift, there is no official party line on the matter of election thresholds. It is time for cautious optimism - the threshold might just drop yet.

Sunday, 13 August 2006

Will the electoral threshold ever fall?

As it stands, any political party hoping to send MPs to Ankara must win at least 10% of the national vote first. It is generally understood, although never blatantly said, that the threshold is kept in place to prevent parties with Kurdish roots such as the Democratic Society Party (DTP, formerly DEHAP) from having a say in the country's direction.

The measure backfired on its architects in glorious fashion, however, when some of the country's biggest parties - including those that were in government - failed to cross their own barrier in November 2002. In fact, only two parties succeeded: propelled into government was the Justice and Development Party (or AKP, with 34% of the vote) while the Republican People's Party (CHP, with 19%) were joined by a handful of independents in opposition.

Nearly four years have passed since that election, and it has produced the country's most stable government in decades. Coalition governments in Turkey, particularly in the 1990s, have been a mishmash of different ideologies. They have never lasted particularly long either, and there is no doubting that much good has come from having a single party in power.

But among all this talk of stable politics, it is very easy to overlook the fact that a massive 57% of Turkish voters were not represented by their party of choice in parliament. How much of a mandate does the current parliament have if it is not even representing half of all votes cast? It is a question that Turkish journalists frequently ask, but politicians don't like to answer.

The problem lies with the threshold. It is simply too high.

But lowering it is not easy. Many argue that lowering the threshold would allow the election of Kurdish MPs affiliated to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party. They say that such MPs could speak in parliament in support of terrorists - it would even be possible to elect terrorists themselves.

Such arguments are clearly rubbish. Not all Kurds are terrorists - and in a change from the nineties, even Turkish politicians agree. And as Altan Öymen points out in today's Radikal, if they really were terrorists, they certainly would not be allowed to form a legal political party liken the DTP in the first place.

So if the main objection to lowering the threshold is not a fear of Kurds, what is it? Both the prime minister and main opposition leader support the current system, saying it brings stability to parliament. But the fact remains that had the threshold been lowered to the European norm of 5% ahead of the 2002 elections, there would have been not two but seven parties in parliament. It would have meant fewer seats for the AKP and CHP. It would probably have meant another coalition government. But it would have also meant that twice as many - 80 percent - of Turkish voters would be recognised in parliament.

Neither the AKP nor the CHP want to make the change, and you can see their point of view. After all, why change the system that brought them power, and so much of it?

An encouraging sign is that AKP and CHP leaders admit parliamentary representation is a problem. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, has suggested introducing a national electoral district alongside Turkey's 81 existing provincial districts. This national district would be exempt from the 10% threshold, and seats would be allocated to parties according to their share of the national vote. That way, he says, even smaller parties can have a voice in parliament. CHP leaders aren't keen on the idea, and neither are other opposition parties.

Mr Erdoğan has also spoken of introducing a threshold for independent MPs, which is currently the only way that minorities can enter parliament. Unsurprisingly, independent MPs are less than enthusiastic.

Both of the prime minister's suggestions ideas are riddled with complications just waiting to happen. They seem to be an attempt to fix around the problem rather than address the core of the issue. But there is reason to be optimistic: Mr Erdoğan has promised to discuss the issue when parliament reconvenes in the autumn. A lower threshold might be long way off yet, but at least there is hope of talk about one. And that is an encouraging sign.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Shrinking Armies

Day one, post two, and something interesting has happened already. The newly-appointed chief of the General Staff, General Yaşar Büyükanıt, has announced that the Turkish army is to shrink in size by up to 30 percent over the next eight years.

Speaking to the latest issue of the military's Defence and Aviation (Savunma ve Havacılık) magazine, he said he wanted to reduce the number of employed staff and condense the land forces' "structure of power". NTVMSNBC quote him as saying that under his aptly-titled "Force 2014" plan, he wants to create an army that is small in quantity but modern in quality. The new force will, he says, be made up of modern weapons systems and brigades with high firepower.

This is an interesting announcement from the man poised to take over as head of one of the ten largest armies of the world. You don't have to travel far in any part of Turkey to see a military outpost, a gendarme or at least one of those rectangular red signs outside a military zone that warn trespassers away. This omnipresence is easily explained by the fact that the army regards itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular system.

The role has won it much respect - the Turkish Armed Forces are probably held in higher esteem than any other organisation in the country - and the military knows this. It is for this reason that its notorious history of intervention in government has been regarded by many Turks as necessary, even welcome. Military interference has ranged over the years in degree from a few polite words in the defence minister's ear to an all-out coup d'etat and suspension of party politics - although to its credit, whenever a coup did take place, efforts to restore democracy were launched immediately afterwards.

However, even the army could not completely avoid the unprecedented winds of change that have swept Turkey over the last few years. Two years ago, spending on the military - traditionally higher than any other branch of state - was cut for the first time into second place, behind education. The military's influence has also been substantially reduced over the National Security Council, a body which The Economist once called a place "where military leaders barked orders". There have been rumours of friction between soldier and statesman ever since; until his appointment two weeks ago, for instance, certain circles in Ankara were convinced that the government did not want General Büyükanıt to be the next chief of staff.

Büyükanıt's restructuring programme is a clear indication that he would rather have a modern and efficient military force, rather than three quarters of a million men, at his disposal. It can also be interpreted as a response to changing times and changing circumstances - after all, the kitty is a little less full than it once was.

But it does also raise certain questions about compulsory military service, specifically, "What will happen to it?" As it stands, all Turkish men have to serve for eighteen months, or nine if they manage to get into university education first. There have been rumours of a gradual abolition of compulsory service; could this be an indication of things to come?

Signing in

After thinking about it for the best part of two minutes, I've decided to submit to the tidal wave and join the world of blogging. I'm not expecting this to be read by great hordes of people - I'll be surprised if I get many readers at all - but I, like so many in the world, am a man with something to say, so I will simply say it and hope someone listens.

For the sake of introductions, my name is James Vincent, I'm an Englishman born not far from London, and I'm a freelance journalist currently based in Istanbul. I have several years experience of living in Turkey and watching Turkish politics, and through this blog I intend to monitor and comment on developments in this staggeringly large, unnecessarily proud and yet uniquely beautiful country.

Turkey is a country of overwhelming potential, and with each passing day the Turkish people become more and more aware of it. The past few years have brought about change that many here would not have thought possible just a decade or two ago. This change has, on the whole, been for the good, although there is a long list of things to be concerned about.

At the top of this list is Article 301 of the new Penal Code, which brings in prison sentences in particular to writers and journalists who defame and degrade "Turkishness". This is not a new concept - censorship has always existed here in varying degrees - but that does not mean it should continue, and it should certainly not be part of a penal code that is meant to make Turkey more acceptable to the European Union.

This blog will contain my views, my rants, my praises, my disappointments. This does not mean I won't allow the opinions of others - quite the contrary, I encourage them, and I hope that if anyone gets around to reading this blog on a regular basis, some healthy debate will emerge. To this end, I will not be moderating comments before they appear beneath my entries - at least for the moment. I am new to the blogging scene though, so treat me nicely.

All best for now,