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, 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.