We have moved / Taşındık!

If you're reading this, you've come to the old home for the James in Turkey website. The website has changed servers and adopted a new look ahead of the 2014 local election.

For the latest Turkish politics and election analysis from Michael Daventry redirect your bookmarks to jamesinturkey.com.

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,