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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.