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Sunday, 4 November 2007

Polar opposites

Memorials don't tend to be particularly exciting. They are superficial things: grand, but instantial; attractive, but symbolic. They don't do anything. Their role is just to sit and be an aide-mémoire.

The trouble with symbolism is that it makes for an easy target, and target practice was exactly what fifty-or-so Turks were doing when they gathered outside the Temple of Peace in Cardiff. They were there to protest the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the victims of what so many call an Armenian genocide.

It was meant to be a sombre, religious affair. The idea was for the Armenian ambassador and Welsh presiding officer to unveil the memorial (a "khatchkar"), to have Britain's leading Armenian bishop bless it, and to celebrate the burgeoning Welsh-Armenian relationship. Then everyone would be happy: the Welsh would celebrate a rare moment of internationalism, the Armenians would have something bearing the word "genocide" on British public land. All very symbolic.

The Turks did not ruin the event (the khatchkar was blessed, as was this blogger, a sole recipient of holy water on the nose) but they certainly made their voice heard. "What is the Armenian genocide? Pack of lies" was the dominant chant of the day, others called it a "monument of shame". One thoughtful banner read: "Armenian genocide: fact or fiction?" But there was no incursion into the temple, nor any attempt to reach or deface the memorial. The Welsh police contingent, about 10 officers strong, seemed almost unnecessary. Everyone was so well behaved.

But things did appear ugly, particularly when a Turkish camera operator was confronted shortly before the unveiling. "Would you please not speak in Turkish?" she was asked. "This is our place at the moment, okay?" The event organisers were then alerted and a brief squabble broke out. It ended only when a police officer came to escort not just the camera operator, but all the Turkish journalists away from the memorial. They co-operated, but were not happy. One Anatolia news agency reporter said she would complain to Britain's National Union of Journalists.

It was embarrassing for all, not least Stephen Thomas, the director of the Temple of Peace. It went against all the messages of peace and sincerity that had been given just moments before. There was a definite anti-Turkish feeling in the air: one visitor pointed to my t-shirt (which read "Polskie Morze byc najlepsze", purchased in Poland) and said that it was Turkish, and that I must be a Turk. There are only so many times you can say "gift from my mother" at the unveiling of a memorial before you draw the crowd's attention.

The eviction of Turkish journalists was despicable. It was also symbolic: it showed how clearly the lines are drawn, how far apart the sides have become. It is not the existence of a memorial that is controversial, it is that Wales has picked a side. And it is not the word "genocide" that is so sacred to Armenians and so taboo to Turks, it is the consequences of accepting that word.

This plain piece of Welsh stone symbolises the gulf between Turkey and Armenia. Yesterday went to show that it will not be bridged any time soon.

Monday, 22 October 2007

A time to be rational

Yesterday saw the acceptance by the Turkish people of a package of reforms that brings about some important changes to Turkey's executive command, and more subtle - but no less substantial - changes to the workings of parliament. Unofficial results gave a solid "Yes" vote (69 percent), although turnout (67 percent) was the lowest recorded for a Turkish referendum.

The public consultation comes as Turkey is in the news for very different reasons, be it terrorism on the Iraqi border or Armenian bills in the US House of Representatives. The referendum has its roots in a government angry at not being able to elect its choice of president. Since then, there has been a general election, followed by a president one, and the number of dead in the southeast has been topped up by another few hundred. So the original motive for a public vote is gone, and there are other pressing things to worry about. Was the referendum worth it?

Of course it was. One of the reforms - electing the president by the people - is material to the way Turks are governed, and we now know Turks do want to choose their president in future. Turkish presidents from now on, including the incumbent Abdullah Gül, will serve no more than two five-year terms.

A less-trumpeted reform reduces the term of parliament to four years. This serves to formalise what has already been something of a tradition for Turkish parliaments for decades; it also reduces the possibility of a new president and parliament being chosen in the same year.

The other changes relate to quorum and voting procedures in parliament. The number of MPs needed for a session to be quorate is explicitly set out at 184 - a third of the total number of members plus one. This should prevent future brawls over the constitution like the one in the spring that annulled an attempt to elect Mr Gül and triggered an early general election.

Critics have dismissed the last change - and therefore the entire referendum - as a redundant, technical matter. They point to Mr Gül's election, the fresh AK mandate, and the work on a new constitution. One critic on NTV last night described it as "madness" that any party would willingly want to reduce its own parliamentary term. But let it not be forgetten that it was a mere "technical" argument over 184 or 367 votes that gridlocked Turkish politics for a fortnight. It was all worth it if only to prevent that from happening again.

The decision to push ahead with the referendum is also a show of principled politics on the part of the AK party: it shows consistency and a belief that a public vote is a way to put issues to the people, not just an avenue to push their man to the top.

The critics do have one very important point. It had not been entirely clear whether Mr Gül would have to immediately step down and contest a direct president election if there was a yes vote. Parliament voted just last week to clear up that anomaly, but voters based outside of Turkey had already been voting on the original text at border checkpoints since September. You can't change the rules after the game has started, however small the change might be.

The Turkish press has been remarkably uninterested in the news this morning, and that is unsurprising. The referendum coincided with the deaths of twelve Turkish soldiers in a PKK attack on the village of Dağlıca, close to the Iraqi border. Up to thirty terrorists were killed in the hot pursuit that followed, but army sources estimate there were up to 150 PKK members involved and most of them had disappeared back over the border. No country can tolerate attacks of this size and frequency for long.

The big question is whether the AK government will use its fresh parliamentary approval to launch a cross-border raid into Iraq and seek out the PKK camps. The answer is that Turkey has about as much right to enter Iraq as coalition forces did in 2003. The reality is that a raid would probably have little effect, just like the twenty-four attempts that preceeded it. But this is a country that is getting impatient and insecure. Acumen doesn't come into it.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

This resolution is not the answer

And so it passes. A few hours ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives voted 27 to 21 in favour of a bill that finds the Armenian massacres of 1915 to be genocide. It passed a lot narrower than many expected - the very public objections of State Secretary Condoleeza Rice and several of her predecessors will have helped with that - but pass it still did. From here, the bill moves to a full vote in the House.

The Turks are angry. President Abdullah Gül has responded already, accusing the voting members of "sacrificing large-scale issues for small domestic political games". At the vote, a Turkish parliamentary delegation expressed its sorrow; the Armenian delegation burst into applause. There have been small-scale protests outside the US Embassy in Ankara, and there are expected to be more tomorrow. Oh, and armed police guards have already appeared at Istanbul's Armenian churches.

It is a victory for America's pro-Armenian lobby. The slim Democratic majority means that it is likely, though by no means certain, that both houses of Congress will vote the bill through. President Bush has made his opposition clear, which scuppers the chance of any formal policy change for the moment. And in any case, the bill is non-binding. The United States will continue to not use the word "genocide" when referring to the events of 1915.

So why such vociferous Turkish anger? Part of it is down to the bill itself (avaliable here). Historically speaking, it is a crude effort. The first article of section two, in particular, is highly contested: "The Armenian Genocide ... (resulted) in the deportation of nearly 2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed, 500,000 survivors were expelled from their homes, and which succeeded in the elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland." Even those Western historians who refer to an Armenian genocide will tell you they can't speak in specific numbers. No-one knows how many people perished; politicising history won't help us find out.

But there are two other reasons for Turkey's anger, rooted far beyond the content of the American bill. First, many Turks genuinely believe they could not have carried out such an atrocious act. "I cannot believe we were able to organise ourselves into doing it," a friend once told me. "We can hardly organise the day-to-day workings of government." Second, there is the very real issue of financial compensation to the descendants of those Armenians who were deported.

This evening, the tabloid Hürriyet's website carried an American and Turkish flag under the headline "Is this the end of a hundred-year partnership?" Of course it isn't, and Turkey isn't about to kick the United States out of İncirlik Air Base (usefully close to the Iraqi border) either. The US leadership knows precisely how sensitive the Armenian issue is, and it also knows how valuable Turkey is as an ally.

But that does not mean Turkey should just stand around grumbling to anyone who will listen. There are two things it can - and should - do. Firstly, it should unilaterally open diplomatic relations with Armenia, irrespective of that country's continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Secondly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should fulfil his earlier promise and appoint a delegation of Turkish, Armenian and Western historians to investigate what exactly happened in eastern Anatolia between 1915 and 1923. As Mr Erdoğan has said before, it is a question for historians, not politicians.

The Chairman of the House committee, Tom Lantos, described today's bill as a "sobering choice" between the desire to condemn "this historic nightmare" as genocide against a possible greater risk to US troops. It will do neither; nor, it seems, will it have the happy side-effect of reigniting historical debate on the matter. It is the Turkish side that needs to take the initiative with that.

Monday, 10 September 2007

The end of the CHP

We all know the Republican People's Party (CHP) has been somewhat split since the July's general election. We also know that Mustafa Sarıgül, mayor of Istanbul's Şişli district, has launched a campaign to topple the party's stubborn leader, Deniz Baykal, and has recruited a sizeable group to his cause. What we didn't know was the extent of the split in the CHP. Two separate meetings in Ankara yesterday helped us figure that one out.

September 9th is the anniversary of the CHP's foundation. Mr Baykal chose to mark this day, and no doubt reassert his dwindling influence, by visiting the tomb of his party's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And so 170 thousand people from all across the country descended on the mausoleum in Ankara. They arrived with Turkish flags and posters of their founder, and chanted for enduring secularism. Mr Baykal wrote in the VIP guestbook that there were "attacks on the Republic from inside, not outside" and it had to be defended. All in all, it was rather like those Republican rallies that took place in the spring.

It just so happened that Mr Baykal's attempts to secure his seat coincided with another rally barely ten minutes down the road, in front of the CHP headquarters. This was the Sarıgül rally, with its desperately uncatchy slogan "Codeword: 999 S, destination: government". It turns out "999 S" refers to a Sarıgül rally on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month. Ho-hum. It was not the success Sarıgülists would tell you it was: attendance was ten thousand, a mere fifth of what was predicted; Mr Sarıgül was himself the only major figure present; and television news that evening gave more space to Mr Baykal's gig.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from the day's events. The first is that Mr Baykal's leadership is in the ironic position of being both untenable and secure. He won yesterday: his was the bigger rally, his was the greater parade of influence. Mr Sarıgül does not command nearly as much support, even among Baykal antagonists, and that is partly because he is seen as insincere and unlikeable. In that sense, he differs little from Mr Baykal. For the moment, there is little hope of a change in CHP leadership.

The second conclusion is far more serious: the end is nigh for Atatürk's unreformed party. In his cumulative sixteen-or-so years as CHP leader, Deniz Baykal has entrenched Kemalist ideology, stamped out the high fliers and secured his position by fractioning the Turkish left. As Mr Sarıgül rightly pointed out yesterday, July's election was the seventh in a row that the CHP had lost - and that's without counting local elections. Mr Baykal has now presided over four of them.

Mr Baykal answers critics by saying they won a million more votes than last time; what he blindly ignores is that the governing AK party won six million additional votes. He ignores polls that say nearly three-quarters of CHP voters voted "in spite of the leader". He refuses to recognise that AK's phenomenal victory came through embracing every section of the Turkish people; Mr Baykal did not campaign east of Sivas.

But the issue here is more than mere electoral mathematics. It is now a question of what the CHP is for. There are two stark choices: should it continue to be Atatürk's party and defend his mantra to the death, or should it reclaim those social democratic roots and form a balance to the centre-right AK party? Turkey has changed, the two are no longer compatible. Mr Baykal does not recognise that. The phrase "out of touch" has never been more fitting.

It is with great sorrow that I predict the end of the CHP. This is not fatal for Turkish political opposition, as I had warned a couple of months ago, because Devlet Bahçeli's Nationalist Action Party has since cunningly slipped itself into that position. But it is fatal for the Turkish left wing, which has never been so fractioned and ineffective. Turkey is a naturally conservative country, but that doesn't mean it can do without a liberal voice. The trouble is that there is no easy solution.

Monday, 27 August 2007

The judge who never smiles

Day two thousand, six hundred and fifty-nine must have been Ahmet Necdet Sezer's happiest as President of Turkey. Seeing as the last of his packing was done months ago, he didn't have very much to do except visit the new parliament speaker, Köksal Toptan, on the final leg of his farewell tour. He turned up in the early afternoon, met Mr Toptan at the door and went inside for a twenty minute chat. Predictably, the outgoing president was given a gift: a porcelain plate, hand-made as one of Turkey's finest, was handed over in front of an army of photographers. Rather less predictably, Mr Sezer grinned. He did. Honest. It was a wide grin too. It seems one of the country's grumpiest men can have a spark of fun, too.

At 65, Mr Sezer is the youngest president to leave the post since İsmet İnönü. He was also the first non-partisan, non-military president, having been Turkey's chief justice before becoming the "consensus candidate" to succeed Süleyman Demirel. It was unprecedented stuff: he was jointly nominated not just by the Prime Minister, Bülent Ecevit, and the leaders of the three-party coalition, but also the leaders of both main opposition parties.

But Mr Sezer was not first choice - Ecevit had wanted to extend Mr Demirel's term by three years - and there were eight other candidates for the job, which meant the consensus man was only elected in the third round. But he took the job with nerve. "I shall do all I can," he said after his election, "to protect national unity, defend secularism and achieve the distribution of wealth." It was that third aim that was to get him into trouble.

On February 19th, 2001, Mr Sezer used a meeting of the National Security Council to hold Ecevit to account on wealth distribution. The prime minister's coalition was looking shaky, and an IMF recovery plan to rid Turkey of chronic inflation and economic instability was not going well. Mr Sezer accused Ecevit of not pulling his weight to tackle corruption and, in an infamous heated moment, threw a copy of the constitution towards the prime minister, one presumes for his inspection. Ecevit stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

Analysts later said it was not what Mr Sezer said that had infuriated Ecevit, it was the way he said it. Either way, it caused an economic crisis that shrunk the Turkish economy by a mammoth 10 percent. The Central Bank sold 5 billon dollars on the day of the argument alone in an attempt to buoy a plunging market. It didn't work; thousands lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands saw their savings erased. Ecevit's career never recovered. He and his coalition partners were all voted out of parliament the following year in elections that swept Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's religious AK party to power. President Sezer was all that was left of the old guard.

In the years that followed, Mr Sezer vetoed laws, ammendments and appointments by the AK government - more than any of his predecessors. Far from the man who helped bring crisis, among secuarlists he became the stalwart traditionalist force against a new wave of political Islam. For AK supporters, he was a stubborn, inflexible bureaucrat. He became particularly popular among supporters of the Republican People's Party (CHP), with many canvassing him to replace Deniz Baykal. He has always dismissed those calls, but he has made no secret of his dislike of Mr Erdoğan's politics, and admitted to being surprised and dissatifised with last month's election result.

Ahmet Necdet Sezer was a boring, unwavering, unidealistic president. You could say he treated the post like a judge - he used the state's founding principles as his guide, and didn't stray far from them. Some might call that blind progress, ignoring developments around you, but few could argue Mr Sezer didn't play by the book.

His was the slimline presidency - he was never one for pomp and ceremony, he always returned a part of his presidential budget unspent at the end of the year, and even during the AK years he was rarely outspoken in day-to-day politics. He would insist his convoy stopped at red traffic lights. He would leave the confines of the presidential palace to go shopping. Even his darkest hour, the 2001 crisis, was triggered by his urge to make life better for the ordinary Turk. He gave the impression of a good, modest man, a man who assumed the presidency not because of the glamour but because he genuinely thought it a service to his country.

This presidency has had a timely ending. Turkey is richer, more stable and more mature than it was when Mr Sezer was sworn in seven years and three weeks ago. It now needs the energy of a stimulating president to tackle the country's most ingrained issues.

They say good men do not necessarily make good presidents; Ahmet Necdet Sezer was a boring president, but he was still a good one. His stolidness was just the palpable kind of honesty a country of sleaze and corruption needed. And his beaming smiles today show that even the most adamant judge can hang his robes and go home. His work is done.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Wonderful censorship

After a month of grey London, it was sheer joy to land in Istanbul and step out into sunshine brighter than the orange easyJet plane that brought me to it. What wonderful weather, I thought to myself.

I sailed through customs at the delightfully small Sabiha Gökçen Airport and promptly arranged for the Havaş driver to take his bus via Levent, which is closer to home, rather than direct to Taksim, which is slap bang in the centre of town. This he did just for me. What wonderful people, I thought.

Then I jumped on a minibus to realise I didn't have change for the fare, and made to get off to find a cash machine. But another passenger jumped up and paid the driver for me. What a wonderful country this is.

So when I settled down in front of my computer that evening for my semi-regular tromp around a few favourite websites, I was feeling rather happy about things. And happy I stayed, right up until I typed in the address for Jake's Foreign Perspectives blog and was confronted with a rather rude message, complete with dodgy translaton:

"Bu siteye erişim mahkeme kararıyla engellenmiştir.

T.C. Fatih 2.Asliye Hukuk Mahkemesi 2007/195 Nolu Kararı gereği bu siteye erişim engellenmiştir.

Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance."


Turkey has banned WordPress, the blogging platform. This is not a move without precedent; the popular definitions site ekşisözlük and, more famously, YouTube have both been blocked in the past. Turk Telekom's virtual monopoly on internet access in Turkey makes a ban an easy thing to enforce. There is, after all, just the one service provider to submit a court order to. Such a ban wouldn't be as easy in a place like Britain, where multiple companies maintain the country's internet infrastructure.

The man behind this ban is the Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, more popularly known by his pen name Harun Yahya. It seems Mr Oktar took offence at some sentiments expressed about his person on a certain WordPress blog, and proceeded to have his lawyers ban the entire platform. Mr Oktar's lawyers were also behind the ekşisözlük ban, which was only lifted after the entries about him were deleted.

Censorship in Turkey has long been extensive. When it comes to certain sensitive subjects - be it the Kurds, the Armenians, the hidden state or the military - Turkish journalists have always exercised a degree of self-censorship. Even ordinary Turks have a habit of lowering their voices when talking politics, lest they be overheard. In such an environment, the mere recalling of books and banning of websites can be almost second nature.

But despite its long history of censorship, the Turkish state has yet to realise that it just doesn't work. When YouTube was banned for an anti-Atatürk video that appeared in its wares, every other Turkish internet user found a way of watching the video to see out what the fuss was about. I myself have met authors who are delighted when their books are banned and taken away by the police. It makes people want to read them. Surely it's like dealing with a spoilt child - giving attention only makes it worse.

I have very little time for Mr Oktar. He is not an intelligent man. The legal action he has taken against certain WordPress blogs are completely in character and, as far as I can see, without much justification. I don't see how a tiny blog can do much personal harm to him.

But my personal thoughts aside, there is a bigger issue here - the fact that it is possible to ban parts of the Internet in Turkey. The courts should not be able to close entire websites in responsible to a single libel claim. More important than that, though, the internet access of an entire country should not rest in the hands of one single company, however privatised it might be. It's time to break up Turk Telekom.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Now we know - again

Abdullah Gül has just been announced as the AK party's candidate for president again. As anyone who has read anything about Turkey over the last few months will know, he was nominated by his party for the post in April and had to pull out after the most controversial presidential election in Turkish history.

Unlike last time, this nomination comes from the AK party's executive committee, and not the prime minister himself. One of Mr Erdoğan's greatest mistakes last time was to stubbornly keep his choice of candidate secret until the last minute. He announced it a few hours before nominations closed, not even giving his party a chance to digest the news. This time, the party sat down and talked about whether it worth putting Mr Gül forward again. That is a good thing.

Also unlike last time, it seems Mr Gül might have some opposition support. Cihan Paçacı, Secretary-General of the National Action Party (MHP), has said in the last few minutes that he does not "expect a crisis over the nomination". This is not to say the MHP will be voting for Mr Gül, but they have decided to turn up and push attendance over that crucial 367 figure. That would be enough to elect him.

Mr Gül is off canvassing tomorrow, beginning in the morning with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. He is also likely to visit the main opposition CHP and the Democratic Left Party, although both have already said they do not support him. CHP leader Deniz Baykal has described the MHP's decision to attend the vote as "surprising"; Mr Bahçeli countered by saying: "What would our next move be if we did not attend and made it impossible to have an election? We cannot support using crisis and uncertainty to deal in politics." He is absolutely right.

The process is like last time: the first two rounds are on August 20th and 24th, where a candidate needs 367 votes to win. The next two rounds are on August 28th and September 1st, when a candidate requires just a simple majority. Under the precendent set by April's abortive election, there also needs to be at least 367 MPs casting votes for the round to be valid.

AK has a large enough majority to elect Mr Gül on August 28th, provided the MHP comes to watch. But with 340 seats (minus the speaker), they are 25 votes short of electing him in an earlier round. That gap could be easily bridged with MHP support. Another less likely option would be to cobble together the twenty seats of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party with independents and rebels from other parties. Most likely is that Mr Gül will become president in the third round.

The media in Turkey and abroad will probably interpret the renomination as AK defiance in the face of the CHP and the army. That isn't the way I look at it. But the question that far fewer people seem to be asking is whether Abdullah Gül would make a good president. He is a capable man, aware of the country's institutions, and is certainly no-one's puppet. He is the Foreign Ministry's loss.

The answer is yes.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

So, what's next?

Yesterday, Turkey's Electoral Commission officially confirmed the results of last Sunday's election. There are two significant alterations: AK have gained an extra seat at the expense of an independent in the far southeastern town of Hakkari. The race there was already very close, and it seems that the expatriate vote tipped the balance in the government's favour.

Also, the MHP have lost a seat after one their elected MPs was killed in a road accident while on his way to collect his seals of office. The Commission decided his seat should remain empty, rather than going to the next candidate on the MHP list.

That concludes Turkey's 16th general election. AK now have 341 seats, while the CHP has 112 and the MHP 70. Coverage of the result has been wide and varied; it takes no more than a couple of clicks to read analyses of how it has been a statement against the army, or against the secular establishment, or the end of Turkey as we know it. One particularly amusing column in the New York Post seems to think the Turkish people have willingly ushered in the Middle Ages. Fair enough - but does anyone know if I can still get a mortgage on my straw hut?

I think we've all have enough of analysis and nayesaying. It's now time to look forward. With the results confirmed, parliament will be sworn in on Saturday. Work will begin at once, and there's plenty to be done. So for those who are interested, and indeed those who are not, here's my unofficial, unadulterated take on what to expect over the next few weeks:

1. A new president
This is what triggered elections in the first place, and once parliament is sworn in and a new speaker eleted, this will be the first item on the agenda. Abdullah Gül, the AK party's candidate, has indicated he will stand again, and Deniz Baykal's CHP has reiterated they will not support him. But a repeat of April's 367 scenario seems unlikely, now that the MHP has indicated it will attend the vote.

There is, however, hope of compromise. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he will be visiting each leader individually - including Mr Baykal - to discuss candidates. The most likely outcomes seems to be Mr Gül's election as president.

2. A new consitution
A new constitution for Turkey, crafted by civilian leaders rather than military chiefs, appeared in both AK's and the MHP's manifestos, and it seems work is underway already. It's looking interesting: a lot of AK's proposals seem to involve reducing the influence of state bodies among each other. They want to largely cut the president's powers of appointment and allow his other decrees to be answerable in court.

There are proposals to further reduce the military's influence over state affairs: the National Security Council of military chiefs, for instance, would cease to be a constitutional body, and the Supreme Military Court would be regulated by the civilian courts, not the army. There are also plans to abolish mandatory religion lessons in schools.

These are all, of course, unanounced AK proposals, and will be discussed in parliament and the media before being put to any kind of vote, but it is very much work in progress.

3. Iraq
There are very real fears, now that the election is over, that Turkish troops will be sent into northern Iraq to clear out suspected PKK positions. There have been mutterings over the last few days of a joint US-Iraqi mission in the region, but that hasn't stopped fatal bomb attacks in the southeast. Patience is wearing ever more thin.

4. An EU publicity campaign
Portugal, currently holding the European Union rotating presidency, has made it one of its principal targets to put talks with Turkey back on track. It will culminate, as it has over the last couple of years, in a summit at the end of December that will assess Turkey's progress and decide whether to plod on.

Mr Erdoğan has already said that EU-oriented reforms will continue; now, with a stable majority and several years until the next election, he has the security to sell the EU to increasingly sceptical Turkish public. But the scepticism is not restricted to these shores: the anti-Turkey lobby in the EU has found new voice in French president Nicholas Sarkozy. He has indicated he wants to use this December's summit to divert the EU's relationship with Turkey to something short of membership.

5. A tumultuous opposition
Despite his refusal to resign, Deniz Baykal's position as leader of the CHP is looking shaky. Routine leadership elections are due at a party conference in the Autumn, and the arid Mustafa Sarıgül, mayor of a district in Istanbul, has said he will stand against him. There is also a growing resistance movement led by former parliament speaker Hikmet Çetin.

But it is not just about failing leaders. The Turkish political landscape remains dangerously segregated, with entrenched splits on the left, right and centre. There will need to be some drastic restructuring if the AK party is to be challenged.


These are just a few of the items on a busy summer agenda for Turkey. The country is open for business again. That can only be good news.

Monday, 23 July 2007

A resounding victory that now needs moderation


Last night, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to do what very few of his predecessors could and secured a second, larger mandate from the Turkish people. The AK party won 46.6 percent* of the vote, up from 34 percent five years ago. The main opposition CHP made gains too, moving up a point to 20.85 percent. But it was still a terrible result for Deniz Baykal's party because the bulk of the anti-AKP vote went instead to the nationalist MHP, which staged a successful recovery from its 2002 showing. It got 14.29 percent.

What was most surprising about this election was not the size of AK's victory or the crumbling CHP opposition, but the speed with which the results arrived. NTV began spurting results at 6.50pm, far earlier than the previous election. Within the hour, Mehmet Ağar had resigned as leader of the Democrat Party, citing a poor showing.

And it was indeed a poor showing for the Democrats: 5.41 was far short of the 10 percent threshold for a party that was just a few votes short of crossing it five years ago. Doing worse was Cem Uzan's Youth Party (GP), which despite its aggressive campaign failed to register anywhere. The Felicity Party (SP), the other half of the split in Islamic politics that created the AK party, won a meagre two percent. For them, this vote reinforced what most people believed: that the Turkish people aren't looking for an Islamic state.

This election saw the largest number of independent candidates to enter parliament. Among them was Mesut Yılmaz, the former prime minister who has thrown off charges of corruption stretching back to his time in power to make his return to politics. Rumour has it that he might be pushing for the vacant Democratic leadership. The leader of the right-wing Great Union Party (BBP), Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu, was also elected.

Most significant among the independents are those candidates backed by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). 23 of them were elected, enough to establish a parliamentary group and make them the fourth-largest party in parliament.

So how will the new parliament look? Well, official results pending, we know that the AK should have 340 seats and the MHP 71. When the DTP reforms, they will wield 23 seats and when, as is expected, Mr Yazıcıoğlu rejoins his party, the BBP will have a seat too. A seat should also go to a third independent from the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP).

But what of the CHP? They are projected to have 112 seats, down from 178 they won five years ago, but that is before we take into account the alliance with the Democratic Left Party (DSP). Under the agreement, 13 DSP candidates were to run on the CHP ticket and break away after entering parliament. If they follow through, the CHP will have fewer than a hundred MPs.

Here's how things look:

AKP: 340   DSP: 13
CHP:  99   BBP: 1
MHP:  71   ÖDP: 1
DTP:  23   Ind: 2

For Mr Erdoğan, it is nothing short of a spectacular victory. This morning's papers have called it "the people's memorandum", a reference to the army's warning a few months ago. Foreign news sources say it shows the Turkish people don't agree with warnings that the secular establishment is under threat.

For the CHP, things are grim. The DSP factor makes things look even worse. Mr Baykal has not shown his face since casting his vote in Antalya yesterday morning, and there were angry protests when an official appeared outside party headquarters last night to make a statement to the press. There are calls for Mr Baykal's resignation, even from the traditionally supportive Cumhuriyet newspaper. He might well go but, as one my wiser elders pointed out to me on the phone last night, there's every chance he might come back. He certainly has a habit of doing so.

AK's victory has exposed the weakness of Turkey's opposition: they are simply not organised enough. Hope of unity on the right wing failed after a last minute brawl, and Mr Ağar's Democrats paid for it bitterly with a vote share lower than any of its predecessor parties. The left wing CHP-DSP alliance, meanwhile, is nothing more than a blatant attempt to bypass the electoral threshold. Even the nationalist vote is split, although Devlet Bahçeli's MHP has shown remarkable success in winning back votes from the GP.

In his victory speech last night, Mr Erdoğan made all the right noises: he said the European Union was still their guide for reform, he said they would not shirk from the Republic's basic principles, and he even led his delighted audience in a chant of "one nation, one country, one flag, one state". That should placate the secularist elite for now.

The prime minister might have shown he is not being complacent, but that does not mean he is never going to be. The AK victory should not go unchecked; a credible opposition is a vital part of any democracy. This is why the CHP must drastically reform both itself and Turkish social democracy. I suggest they start with their leader.

* according to results that won't be officially confirmed until next week.
Photo from NTVMSNBC.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Vote 2007: The fall of the Turkish left

As things stand, tongiht is looking like a better result for Turkey than 2002. The AK's mandate is greater, but their power has been curbed. A third party is guaranteed to enter parliament (MHP) and a fourth is set to appear (DTP), which means more Turks have their votes represented. And the CHP might just be forced into badly-needed reorganistion.

An analyst on NTV has just declared Turkey to be "the only major European country not to have a significant political force on the left wing". Now at 9pm, with just about four-fifths of the votes counted, it looks like an accurrate assessment.

The CHP is set to win around 20 percent of the vote, give or take a couple of percent. As is stands, it is a slight improvement on their position of 2002, when they received 19 percent. But the AK's increased majority and the MHP's entry into parliament means that the CHP are to lose a drastic number of seats - the latest NTV projection gives them 110 seats, a loss of 68. And let us not forget that the CHP's seat tally includes that of the Democratic Left Party, which has said it would break away to form its own group after the elections. In short, it is difficult not to call the CHP the big losers in this election.

My ideal presidential candidate, Hikmet Çetin, is also on NTV. He has interpreted the result as "a lack of achievement for the opposition, rather than an accomplishment for the AKP".

The MHP have been remarkably successful. It is no small feat to double your vote of five years ago, when Devlet Bahçeli's party won just 8.34 percent. It seems unlikely that they will reach their historical high of nearly 18 percent, set in 1999, but they are forecast to win around seventy seats.

Another point to note are those independent MP candidates supported by the DTP. Private television stations here are projecting 23 DTP independents will be entering parliament, which would be enough for them to form a parliamentary group. The electoral system does make it rather difficult, however, to predict the share of the vote for specific independent candidates, so these might be the last results we receive.

In all of this, however, what has not been mentioned is the AK party, and the sheer size of their victory. AK's share of the vote has increased by as much as 13 percent, which is nearly a third. They have already become the only governing party in half a century to increase its share of the vote. The MHP's arrival means that AK are in the awkward position of losing seats despite its increased majority, but this should be no more than twenty seats.

I don't think the magnitude of their can be exaggerated easily. Out of Turkey's 81 provinces, AK is leading in 68 of them, and is second in twelve of them. Only in the eastern province of Tunceli, where independents are leading and the CHP is second, has the AK been pushed into third place. This demonstrates how much of a national party AK have become. As Mr Çetin pointed out on NTV, "only (AK leader) Erdoğan and (Democrat party leader) Ağar campaigned east of Sivas." The CHP and MHP were conspicuously absent in the east.

Deniz Baykal must be a worried man.

Vote 2007: March of the independents

This election has seen nearly 700 independent candidates across the country. Never before in a Turkish election have there been so many. With the AK party's victory just about certain, it might be interesting to note that at least six independents have entered parliament already.

Among them is the former prime minister Mesut Yılmaz, who was running as a candidate from the Black Sea town of Rize. He is a former member of the centre-right Motherland Party - given his MP status, he could be a candidate for leadership of the Democrat Party, which has literally been vacated in the last hour.

Ahmet Türk and Aysel Tuğluk, co-leaders of the Kurdish DTP, have also entered parliament. The size of their DTP contingent remains to be seen. An interesting pro-Kurdish name is Sebahat Tuncel, who is running in Istanbul but is currently serving a prison sentence - she has also guaranteed a seat.

Elsewhere, the AK party are doing extremely well in the Aegean, a part of Turkey that is traditionally secularist and, by consequence, pro-CHP. The CHP have pulled ahead in Izmir, but are suffering considerable losses elsewhere, and it seems that the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) is shaping out to be the alternative party of choice to the AK party.

NTV's prediction at 8.20pm forecasts AK will have 342 seats (down 21), CHP: 111 (down 67), MHP: 73 (up 73) and 24 independent seats.

Things to watch out for:

1 - The second placed party. The AK victory is almost certain, but the CHP's position as the main opposition party is looking very shaky. Officials at CHP headquarters are said to be "stunned".

2 - The size of the AK party majority. It looks likely that AK will be able to govern alone, but with three parties now guaranteed to enter parliament, both the AKP and the CHP will return with fewer seats than they won in 2002.

3 - The southeast. The number of those independent MPs who have vowed to join the DTP upon election cannot be predicted yet. They are aiming for at least twenty, so they can form a parliamentary group, which would give them added weight.

Vote 2007: Democrat resignation

Mehmet Ağar, leader of the Democrat Party, has just resigned. It seems certain his party won't cross the election threshold.

I have to admit I wasn't expecting the resignation so soon. Hüsamettin Cindoruk, who used to be parliament speaker during the administration of a Democrat Party predecessor, wasn't expecting it quite so quickly either: "He could have at least waited until midnight".

It's not even eight o'clock yet. This may not be the only resignation we see tonight.

Vote 2007: Three parties in parliament

CNN Turk are predicting a win for the AK party with 46.88 percent of the vote, with a 1.5 percent error margin. Here is the result put together by the reputable Konda poll company:

AKP 46.88
CHP 18.12
MHP 15.74
Independents 6.03
DP 5.28
GP 3.11

NTV says the turnout was 81 percent, up from 74.3 percent in 2002. And this in spite of temperatures above 35 degrees in most parts of the country.

NTV also says that with 47.9 percent of the ballots counted, AK have a national share of 48.8 percent. Second is the CHP on 18.1, third is the MHP on 14.6, which would mean the AK, CHP and MHP have all crossed the election threshold. This will be a parliament of at least three parties.

Meanwhile, Turkish state television is being surprisingly frugal in its results service. TRT reports only 10 percent of votes counted, while the private stations say almost half are counted. Does someone smell an anomaly?

Vote 2007: An AK sweep - already

Striken by food poisoning, I'm seated in front of my television watching the results of Turkey's 16th general election roll in. It makes exciting watching.

As of 7.15pm local time, around a third of all votes have been counted. Here are the major developments:

1 - The incumbent AK party has a 50.4 percent share of all votes counted so far. This means the government has crossed the 10% election threshold already.

2 - The main opposition CHP is leading in Turkey's third largest city, Izmir, and in Izmir only. AK is very close behind.

3 - In a number of provinces in the southeast, including Diyarbakır, independent candidates are leading. The AK party is second. The provinces in the southeast are significant because most of the independent candidates are supported by the predominantly Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), in an attempt to bypass the threshold.

However, the sweep of independent candidates across the southeast is not universal. In some provinces, such as Mardin and Şırnak, the AK party has taken the lead.

4 - As it stands, most of these results are from Turkey's eastern provinces, where polls closed an hour earlier. Barely a tenth of votes have been counted in Turkey's three biggest cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

NTV's exit poll predicts a 45 percent victory for the AK party, with the CHP on 20 percent and the nationalist MHP on 14 percent. With three parties crossing the threshold, this would reduce the number of seats presently held by the AK and the CHP, but AK would still be able to govern alone.

More comments soon.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Closure

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told this morning's Akşam that he wanted Turkey's next president to be elected by parliament from a list of compromise candidates. He said he would visit other political party leaders with the list if necessary, and added: "They (critics) told me I should have previously come forward with multiple candidates, not just the one. We can do that. We will seek compromise over a list of candidates that the constitution finds appropriate."

His words come after similar - but separate - words from main opposition leader Deniz Baykal. Mr Erdoğan was quick to say that while the 11th president, successor to the current incumbent, would be elected by parliament, the 12th president will "definitely" be elected by the people. Mr Baykal has made no such commitment.

The prime minister also said the president's powers would be restricted: "The president's powers will be narrowed, like in Austria and Finland. Prime Ministers are the ones who answer to the people, but it is they who are obstructed on every path. A strengthened prime ministry system is on the way."

As an electoral pledge, we will have to make do with this for now. Turkey is in need of major institutional change, and the leader of the party most likely to win the election has promised to deliver it. It is time, finally, to put the presidential election to one side. It is time to concentrate instead on who should lead Turkey into the next decade.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Onwards to referendum

The Constitutional Court ruled this evening that the Turkish people should be allowed to decide whether they want to elect their own president. It comes after President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the main opposition CHP formally complained about the way the proposal was voted through parliament. The Court's decision is final: the Turkish people will be going to vote in a referendum in October at the very latest.

The ruling was always going to be a controversial one - this very blog saw a very heated discussion on the legalities surrounding the dispute - and the voting margin was as narrow it gets: six of the eleven high judges voted in favour of scrapping the complaint. Five were against.

My regular readers will know this was not the decision I was expecting, having lost considerable faith in the judiciary. But this was the right decision, and there is no need to wave a copy of the constitution about to understand why. An unelected body should not stop the Turkish people from choosing what they want to do. There is no democratic argument for it.

What happens next really depends on who wins the general election. If the AK party is returned to power, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government might try again to pass a law that reduces the waiting time for a referendum to 45 days. That law has been vetoed by Mr Sezer once before; it would be near-comical if he decided to put a law about referendums to a referendum.

If the AK party does not win the election, some experts say the new government might try to elect Mr Sezer's successor in parliament, using the existing system. But AK will probably still have enough seats to boycott and derail the process, just like the CHP did in April. Every lawyer has a different opinion.

All this, of course, is little more than speculation. It is not clear what the parliament will look like after July 22nd. What is clear is that Turkey's constitution, drafted by the army in 1982, is drastically insufficient in coping with democratic crises. We need a new one.

We might just get it. AK's election manifesto pledges a "civilian constitution" prepared with consultation and compromise. Mehmet Ağar's Democrat Party and even the far-right Nationalist Action Party have made similar promises. But the CHP and the nationalist Youth Party have both kept quiet.

What needs to happen over the remainder of this summer is for Turkey's new parliament to elect a new president under the existing system, so that Mr Sezer's term can finally end and stability can finally return to the pyramid's peak. The new government should then set to work on a new constitution that overhauls the entire system. The president would then act as a transitional figure until 2012, when the next head of state would be elected by the people. Turkey's transition to a country truly operating under the rule of law would then be complete.

And once again, unrelenting as I am, I nominate Hikmet Çetin to oversee that transition.

Hiatus

James on Turkey has been taking a break for the last couple of weeks, owing to other commitments. I should return shortly with a full look at the coming elections, hopefully beginning with today's expected ruling from the Constitutional Court. Watch this space.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Stop press: Annulments at the door

Further to my entry below, the rapporteur for the Constitutional Court has told reporters that he believes the bill should be scrapped because the vote on some of the articles did not achieve quorum. He said: "367 votes are needed for each article. The reform package should be cancelled completely." I'm still waiting for someone to show me the legal basis for that. So much for an apolitical judiciary.

The rapporteur's opinion is only advisory. It will be a group of high judges that make the decision, but few expect a contrary decision to emerge. There will be no referendum, and the president will not be elected by the Turkish people this time. A very great shame.

Don't hurry, it will happen soon enough

In the last hour, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer announced he was calling a referendum on a bill that would allow his successors to be elected directly by the people. A short statement from the President's Office said that the public vote would be for the entire bill, which was a package of seven rather fundamental changes to the Turkish constitution.

It reduces a president's term from seven years to five, but allows for two terms. Candidates would need the support of twenty MPs to secure a nomination. The election itself would be a nod to the French system, in which the candidate securing an absolute majority would win. If no-one gets enough votes, there would be a second round two weeks later in which only the top two candidates would run.

The bill also explicitly establishes the figure for a quorate meeting in parliament: 184. This article was included to avoid a repeat of April's election fiasco, in which the presidential vote was annulled because there was no clear figure in the constitution.

One final article reduces a full term of government from five years to four, which would set the next general election for 2011.

Mr Sezer was not allowed veto the package this time - that privilege is only granted to him once - so it was a choice between approving it and calling a public vote. He will also be taking the bill to the Constitutional Court, although the specifics of his complaint are anyone's guess for now.

All in all, this is good news. It does scupper the government's plans of running simultaneous parliamentary and presidental elections on July 22nd, but as a Turkish proverb goes, "the devil interferes in hurried work". Under the current rules, the referendum itelf can't be held before October. A separate bill that would bring it forward to August is still in Mr Sezer's inbox. And this one he can veto.

Mr Sezer has previously said he is against directly electing a president because the office in its current state wields too much power. There needs to be a discussion on how to alter the office, he says, before it can be publically electable. He has a point: Turkish presidents do have a first-time veto over any law that comes out of parliament and the final say on the appointment of all top state officials. Of course, Mr Sezer himself doesn't shy from using that power. He has vetoed more laws than any of his predecessors.

So you might be wondering where the good news is. The Constitutional Court, after all, can still throw out the bill and halt the referendum process. That would mean that Mr Sezer's successor would have to be elected under the old rules - that is to say, by MPs. But even if that does happen, a new AK goverment is more likely to opt a compromise candidate after their experience in April. That new president could then lead a debate on an elected president's powers. It would allow Turkey to make a calm and gradual transition to a public presidency, and bring to an end a debate that has raged long before Mr Sezer ever took office.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

What do journalists know, anyway?

Adnan Menderes is remembered with a combination of fondness and embarrasment in Turkey today. Embarrassment, because his government was toppled in Turkey's first military intervention since Ottoman times, and Menderes himself was tried and hung.

His death was either an accident or a convenient mistake, depending on your point of view. The telephones at the prison mysteriously went dead just before the execution, and a personal appeal from the president to halt the process never got through in time.

Today it is remembered as one of the darker chapters in Turkish history. Even the army has expressed regret. And Menderes's reputation is secure: after all, he headed Turkey's first successful opposition party and led the country through a decade of reform and development in the 1950s. His name now graces an airport and a university. That's the fondness. He will not be forgotten.

But for all his zealousness, Menderes was a stubborn man, and he didn't think much of the media either. He tightened press censorship laws in the latter half of his premiership, and made an especial effort to suppress - not ignore - criticism of his policies. It was partly this behaviour that alarmed military chiefs in the first place. He appeared to be openly challenging Atatürk's secular state without letting anyone else be open in their objections.

Menderes's style - his programme of reform, his outspoken character, his contempt for the press - has often been compared to the current prime minister. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sued many journalists and cartoonists over the past five years for personal denigration, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his efforts only grant his critics a wider audience. But he has made a handsome sum in compensation too.

Last month, The Economist took Turkey to its front cover with the headline "The battle for Turkey's soul". The leading article inside showed depth and a thorough understanding of Turkish politics, clearly written by someone living in, or at least familiar with the country. It came to the conclusion that "if Turks have to choose, democracy is more important than secularism". It encouraged the re-election of Mr Erdoğan's AK party on July 22nd.

What interested me about the piece was the reaction. Many people I spoke to were surprised at how blatantly the Economist aligned itself politically - newspapers in Turkey do show political leanings, but they are rarely arresting in their support.

Others were outraged at how a foreign publication could dare to comment on Turkish affairs. An NTVMSNBC report on the story is a telling example. "What right do the British have to comment?" says one particularly informed commenter from Ankara. "The British couldn't defeat the Turkish army (in 1923), so they are passing the task on to the AK party." Another asks the Economist when it will stop meddling in Turkey's internal affairs. There is also condemnation of British imperialism and vows to overcome it.

In 2005, a Swiss magazine quoted the author Orhan Pamuk as saying "Thirty thousand Kurds, and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody dares to talk about it." He was referring to Turkey. The words landed him in court, brought him several death threats and probably contributed to his Nobel literature prize last year. Many Turks were angry at his words, including President Sezer, who conspicuously failed to congratulate him on his Nobel victory.

In April of this year, Nokta magazine (see my picture, above) ran what it claimed were the diaries of a retired general, in which he purportedly says there had been plans for a military coup in 2004. The story caused quite a stir, particularly when the former chief of staff became suspiciously vague when asked to comment. It all culminated not in a full investigation - the army said the diaries were fake - but in a police raid of Nokta's headquarters. The magazine has since closed down, citing "pressures".

Journalism would not be journalism if it did not sometimes court controversy. A widely-read, stirring piece will always find an angry response from a disagreeing reader. But in Turkey, there is an ugly habit of directing that anger not at the opinion, but at the author himself. There is a tendency to approach criticism in a "one size fits all" manner; that is to say, that all critics are troublemakers.

This is wrong. Nokta should be able to publish without fear of a police raid. Orhan Pamuk should be able to say what he thinks without fear of a trial. The Economist should be able to publish its thoughts on Turkish politics, as it does for every country, without being labelled an imperialist tool.

The reality is that a harsly critical story can be ballooned into an act of treason, particularly if the author is not already well-known. It is as if freedom of speech applies only until the point of criticism, and anyone who crosses the line is a troublemaker.

I myself have been dismissed from a state broadcaster for criticising Turkish radio. When the director called me into his office to hand me my verbal notice, he did not comment on what I had written. Instead, he said: "You should have known this would happen. Well, you know now, and you won't do it again, but you have to go in any case."

What is interesting about all this is that it is a mindset. It is as if everybody knows there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, and if you do cross them you must be asking for trouble. What it boils down to is the Turkish state being suspicious of everyone - of Greeks, of Armenians, of Circassians, of the Alevi sect of Islam, of Kurds, and especially of Turks.

There is a solution, but it is not an easy one: people must learn to trust each other.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Pay attention. It's going to happen

In London, from where I write this entry, the Iraq war has a numbing effect. Most people know it is happening, but rarely any longer do they acknowledge it. And after four years of death and destruction on an almost daily basis in a faraway land, they can hardly be blamed for it.

The mood is reflected in British TV news: Iraq does still feature in bulletins, but the reports of carnage normally appear in the middle, the least-watched bit, following all those stories about councils wanting to empty bins less frequently. It's not that people don't care, but they are numbed by the news that never differs.

But things are about to change in Iraq. It will not be a change for the better, and it will not come from America's Congress, with its new multi-billion dollar aid package, or from Iran, with its alleged backing of the insurgency. The change will come from Turkey, which is threatening to invade the north of Iraq. And anyone who remotely understands the region knows that Turkey can - and will - do it.

The predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq is a stark contrast to the rest of the country. While British and American troops face attacks by the day, the Kurds have set up a stable, autonomous government, with greater freedom than they ever had under Saddam Hussein. They even have one of their number as Iraqi president. Iraqi Kurdistan is a comfort to coalition forces, but Turkey wants to intervene.

Why? Because, largely unnoticed to the outside world, Turkey is under attack. Attacks against the state and army have been at least monthly occurences since the PKK renounced its unilateral ceasefire three years ago. Yesterday, six soldiers were killed by remote-controlled mine during a land search operation in the southeastern town of Şırnak. Even as I type, Turkish radio said that a state security chief in nearby Tunceli was targeted today in a bomb attack.

Turkey's army says the attacks come from secret bases over the border in northern Iraq. It accuses figures in the Kurdish administration, and even US military chiefs in the region, of turning a blind eye to their existence. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, said at a press conference on April 12 that a swift operation was needed to remove the bases and stop the attacks. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has indicated in the last week that he agrees.

To put things in perspective, Turkey's southeast is not Iraq's southeast. The attacks are not as frequent, nor as reckless. They target security officials and soldiers, not civilians. The region is not the danger zone it was twenty years ago, and there is little talk of imposing another state of emergency. But none of this justifies the PKK attacks. They are still taking lives, and Turkey wants to stop them.

Both America and the Iraqi government in Baghdad have opposed the idea of a Turkish intervention for months. Both have favoured solving the problem among themselves, and there have been a number of three-way meetings. But the attacks have not stopped, and not a week has seemed to go by recently without television pictures of another flag-draped coffin being buried. No one was hurt in the Tunceli attack, but patience is wearing thin. Amid rising nationalism and anti-Americanism, more people than ever before are saying that Turkey needs to solve the problem alone. And with an election just around the corner, Mr Erdoğan might just agree.

No one doubts Turkey has the capability to strike northern Iraq. Its army, after all, is NATO's second largest. But it is hard not to feel that the United States is not taking the threat of an intervention seriously enough. It can happen, and unless something changes soon, it will happen. Someone needs to take notice.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Take note


Two million people would not gather in five cities over three weeks if they didn't have something to say. Yesterday's Republican rally in the western city of Izmir was perhaps the most impressive of them all. Nearly a million people attended, forming the stunning sight of a sea of red Turkish flags contrasting with the brilliant blue of the Izmir bay.

"Turkey is secular, and shall remain so" has been the predominant chant at this and at previous rallies in Çanakkale, Manisa, Istanbul and the capital Ankara - all western cities. The protestors feel that with the recent presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ruling AK party has taken one threatening step too many towards dismantling Atatürk's legacy. The intention is, they claim, to end the secular republic.

That would be a very difficult thing to do. The Kemalist legacy is embedded in Turkey's institutions: not a week goes by before children are reminded of it at school, and imams are instructed to preach it at Friday prayers across the country. You can't overturn that in a hurry.

One thing to consider would be whether AK really does want to end secularism. A recent Economist article would argue that evidence, so far, is to the contrary. The economy is riding high, the judiciary has been reformed, and ties with Europe are stronger than ever before. If AK truly is planning to instil sharia law the moment it takes the presidency, it's doing a very good job hiding it.

The Turkish people are better off than they were five years ago. Broadly speaking, they are happier, richer, and more likely to be in work than in 2002. Broadly speaking, this is down to the politicians in AK, who recognised what was needed and delivered it. Broadly speaking, they deserve to win the next election.

And win it they probably will, because Turkey is a country of such size and diversity that even two million is not an electoral liability. Notice, for instance, that the Republican rallies have all been in western cities (with the exception of an upcoming event in Samsun, on the eastern Black Sea coast). For all the millions who took to the streets, there are millions more who did not.

That is how some AK leaders have been consoling themselves over the past few weeks. They are wrong, and Mr Erdoğan should move to correct his party's position. He was wrong to treat the presidential election as if it were an internal primary. He should not have waited until the last minute, when tensions were at their peak, before consulting the opposition. Now, more than ever, Turkey needs a compromise candidate for president, and only Mr Erdoğan can start the process to find one. If there is to be a public vote for president on July 22nd, he must propose and nominate Hikmet Çetin.

AK cannot afford to ignore the secularist protests. That will only make things more difficult for them when they do return to government in July - especially if they need to seek a coalition partner.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

This man is the real problem

As the leader of the country's main opposition party, Deniz Baykal is in a position of exceptional influence. It is his responsibility to be something of a symbol of morality for the rest of us. He would be ill-advised, for instance, to be pictured smoking a cigarette. Or making a rude hand gesture. Or shunning an affectionate baby.

The same, you would think, would apply to respecting the country's state mechanisms. Surely it goes without saying that the CHP leader believes in the rule of law?

It appears not, acording to what he said yesterday: "If the Constitutional Court dismisses the CHP application, Turkey could be dragged towards conflict. It could lead to worse times." He seems to suggest that the court's decision is a matter of life and death. It is scaremongering rubbish and should not be taken seriously. Turkey is not going to descend into fighting in the streets and families torn apart over a court ruling. What should be taken seriously is the fact that the words were spoken at all.

I find it difficult to understand Mr Baykal's intent. If his statement is an assesment of the political climate, it is weak. If it is an attempt to influence the verdict, it is pitiful. If they were meant to be sage words of warning, they were anything but.

What Mr Baykal should have done is what the ruling AK party did after an internal meeting yesterday evening. "We cannot comment," a short statement said, "while the court process continues."

That court process is expected to be concluded tonight, whether it is in the early evening or in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It is certainly true that the verdict will shape Turkey's immediate future. A pro-AK ruling will effectively install Abdullah Gül in Çankaya as the next president; a pro-CHP ruling will thwart that. An early election is likely in both cases - not only, as Mr Baykal would have us believe, if AK is defeated.

Whatever verdict the court does reach, it must be an impartial one. It must be a decision reached without the influence of outsiders such as Mr Baykal. The trouble is, in a country like Turkey, you cannot be sure that will not happen.

As for Mr Baykal himself, his words have proven what we already knew: that he does not respect the very institution upon which he says the country's future hangs. "Instead of offering an alternative vision," said last week's Economist, "he has built a career on scaremongering. The EU is bent on dismembering Turkey, the Americans want to dilute Ataturk's legacy, the CIA is plotting to kill him — these are his tired mantras."

I would go further: Deniz Baykal is a thug. As the leader of the largest unreformed political party in Turkey, he is more adept at orchestrating the secular bloc he leads than recognising the needs of his people. This legal challenge is just the latest in a long series of attempts to force an early election. It looks like this time he has succeeded. The polls suggest that AK might lose some support at the next election, but they also suggest those supporters will not be flocking in their droves to the CHP. Mr Baykal should be worried.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

This is not a crisis

The past week will go down as one of the most exciting in Turkey's history. It began on Tuesday with the ruling AK party's nomination of foreign minister Abdullah Gül as its presidential candidate. It ended yesterday with a high court challenge and a stark military warning.

Here is what has happened in the last 48 hours: there were 361 votes cast in Friday's first round. Abdullah Gül received 357 votes, ten short of what he needed to win. Of the remaining four ballots, three were spoilt and one was blank.

The main opposition CHP took the election to the Constitutional Court, claiming the legal requirement for attendance (367 MPs, they say) was not met. AK says the 367 figure is irrelevant, but also slyly claims the attendance was 368, thanks to CHP members coming in to observe the ballot.

The court has promised a judgement before Wednesday's second round. If the CHP claim is upheld, the first round will be annulled and all further rounds cancelled. The likely route from there is an immediate general election. If, however, the court dismisses the CHP claim, Wednesday's second round will go ahead as planned, and Mr Gül will be elected president by round three, when the vote requirement is dropped to a simple majority of 276.

Hours after the CHP's case was handed to the court, the military weighed in. In a statement released at midnight, timed so that it would miss the evening news bulletins but appear on the morning front pages, the army said that the presidential election was turning into a discussion of the secular system. It went on: "The Turkish Armed Forces is watching the situation with concern. It must not be forgetten that the armed forces is party to these discussions and is the absolute guardian of secularism."

The government's response to the statement was just as blunt and angry: "We cannot accept an anti-government declaration from the General Staff, an office answerable to the prime minister. This midnight statement can only be interpreted as an attempt to influence the judicial process." The European Union responded too, saying that the presidential election was a test case for the army to respect democracy.

Today, tens of thousands of people have gathered in Istanbul for a secularist rally. It follows a similar demonstration in Ankara two weeks ago, when around 300,000 people attended to protest Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's potential candidacy.

Three important points must be made about this weekend's developments. Firstly, this is indeed the first presidential election in Turkey's history to be taken to court, but that is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it demonstrates that Turkey is a democratic state operating under the rule of law. Politicians frequently bicker; the fact that the judges have been called in to settle this dispute shows that power in Turkey does operate horizontally as well as vertically.

Second, there might be more to the army's position than meets the eye. It is true that this is the bluntest statement since Yaşar Büyükanıt became Chief of the General Staff, but it could have been a preemptive measure. Today's secularist rally is sure to feature demonstrators calling for the army to intervene. Perhaps the statement was designed to placate those demonstrators.

Where the army is most certainly wrong is in its resolute insistence that the secular system can never be up for discussion. To discuss does not mean to dismantle. In fact, discussion could strengthen the secular system. A public debate on the role of religion in the state can help remind Turks why secularism is important without having to resort to Kemalist dogma. More on that in a later post.

Third - this is not a crisis. It is a serious debate concerning issues far more fundamental than a voting technicality, but everyone is playing calmly and by the book. Talk of a direct military intervention is, at this stage, nothing but rumour.

It is difficult to predict what the Constitutional Court's decision - expected on Tuesday - will be. My personal opinion is that the CHP challenge is baseless, because the constitution contains nothing to suggest the attendance for a presidential vote should be any different from any other session. My feeling is that the case should be dismissed, but I cannot wholeheartedly say that I expect the court to rule against the CHP. As BadTyrpist wrote in a comment on Friday, the text of any pro-CHP ruling will have to be read very closely.

Friday, 27 April 2007

And the underdog withdraws

Ersönmez Yarbay has just withdrawn from the election in support of Abdullah Gül. He had said earlier that he would do this if opposition parties boycotted the vote.

It has been a good publicity stunt for him, though.

The vote begins

Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç has rejected a CHP application for attendance to be taken. There are nine non-AKP MPs in the chamber: five of them are independents, two are from Mehmet Ağar's DYP, and one each are from Anavatan and the CHP.

This would mean there are 361 MPs in parliament eligible for voting - six short of the number needed to vote in a president in the first round. A CHP legal challenge is now certain.

The voting continues.

Mumcu decides: We're out

Erkan Mumcu, leader of parliament's third-placed Anavatan party, has just announced his party too will not be taking part in this afternoon's presidential election. Anavatan has twenty MPs in parliament.

Today's vote will be going ahead regardless. The CHP will be watching it very closely, and is to demand a register as soon as voting is over. Their legal challenge will most likely be launched before the day is over.

It is very unlikely now that Mr Gül will be elected in this round, or indeed in the second round, but the other AK candidate Ersönmez Yarbay did say he would withdraw if all the opposition parties boycott the vote. They have just done that.

AK party MPs have now started to enter the parliament chamber. It's probably a sensible idea: with, 353 of them, it must be a bit of a squeeze.

Electing number eleven

The day has come. Turkey's 542 members of parliament have been called in for 3pm today to vote for the man they want to become the country's next president. They have a choice between two members of the ruling AK party. The first is the party's official candidate, foreign minister Abdullah Gül. The second is Ersönmez Yarbay, an Ankara MP not endorsed by the party. In this first round, a candiddate needs 367 votes to win.

The election is a critical one, perhaps the closest Turkey has ever seen, because each and every vote counts. Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition CHP, had said his party would boycott the vote long before Mr Gül's candidacy was even announced.

Mr Baykal has further threatened to take the election to the Constitutional Court, Turkey's highest judicial body, if there are not 367 MPs present when voting takes place. AK leaders have dismissed the threat as a technicality, pointing to the article in the constitution that say only 184 MPs are needed to start a session of parliament.

But despite the strong show, AK leaders have been shaken by the threat, and Mr Gül has visited opposition leaders in an attempt to find support. As it stands, AK has 353 seats in parliament. Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç will be leading the session, and therefore cannot vote. AK therefore needs at least fifteen other MPs to be present in the chamber, regardless of how they vote, to scupper a CHP legal challenge.

Mehmet Ağar, leader of the True Path party (DYP), has just appeared on television saying his party's four MPs will also not be taking part in the vote. Mr Ağar repeated his view that AK has a sufficient majority to get their candidate through in the third round, and that he did not believe the CHP's challenge was legitimate.

Mr Ağar's words have added weight because his party has agreed to operate in conjunction with Erkan Mumcu's Motherland party for this vote. Mr Mumcu himself is due to give a press conference at 2.30pm - he is expected to give his twenty MPs a free vote.

AK have also failed to win support from the Youth Party, Social Democrat People's Party or the People's Ascent Party, all of which have a seat each.

Mr Gül has been meeting independent MPs in an attempt to add up the numbers. There are also reports of CHP MPs breaking away from party lines to attend the vote.

It's tense. I'll bring more soon.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Now we know

Foreign minister Abdullah Gül was revealed as the unexpected, but not entirely surprising AK party presidential candidate just a few minutes ago. Mr Gül's name was announced by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to rapturous applause at a meeting of the party's MPs.

Also confirmed is the election schedule: the first round of voting will be held this coming Friday 27th April, with the next three rounds taking place on May 2nd, May 9th and May 15th. The likelihood is that Mr Gül will be elected in the third round on May 9th, when he will need 276 votes, a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds majority of 367 required in the first two rounds.

It must be a sad loss for those who work at the Foreign Ministry - they are parting with one of the most competent foreign ministers in Turkey's recent history. Speculation in Ankara will in time surely turn to who might become his successor, though for now even the relentless gossiper should be satisfied. It is also important to acknowledge what Mr Erdoğan has done: by rejecting the presidency for himself, he has avoided the Turgut Özal scenario. It was a shrewd move and should not go unnoticed.

However, there are some serious questions that need to be addressed very soon. Some columnists have said that this election has paralysed the business of government. This is true to a certain extent, but only natural. After all, this is the selection of a man who will see through not just the general elections this November, but also those that follow five years afterwards. A much more serious issue is the presidential election process itself. It is vital that this becomes the last time Turkey's president is elected indirectly.

Turkey is functioning free democracy - the diversity of press coverage during the last few months is testament to that - but the country's presidency is not. The system must be changed well before 2014 to ensure the country's top man is elected directly by the Turkish people. The AKP certainly has the parliamentary majority to make such a change - is it too optimistic to hope it could happen before November?

A more detailed assessment of Abdullah Gül's presidency will follow shortly. For now though, here's something to think about: we all know that Mrs Abdullah Gül wears a headscarf, but fewer might remember that she took Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights in 2002 over the headscarf ban in universities. She withdrew her case after her husband became prime minister. Mr Gül said at the time that it was because the matter had become a political issue rather than a judicial one.

It seems the matter of headscarves is to become another public debate. That can only be a good thing.

Is this Turkey's new president?

April 23rd is always a funny day in Turkey. It is national holiday because it marks the day, now eighty-seven years ago, when the National Assembly was founded in Ankara, formally breaking away from the Sultan's government in Istanbul. The man who orchestrated that break, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, dedicated the day to all children, which is why it is known throughout the country as "April 23rd National Sovereignty and Children's Day".

The drill tends to be pretty much the same each year. In the morning, the prime minister announces to a mass of reporters that he is handing over his duties, albeit temporarily, to a child. The new junior prime minister then speaks of his hopes for Turkey's future, and takes a few light-hearted questions from the press. In the afternoon, there are festivals and performances by children at stadia across the country.

By the evening, it is time to mark that serious business of national sovereignty, with a reception at parliament. These have been strained affairs since the AK party's election, with intense speculation on whether any headscarved wives might turn up, and why the prime minister so insists on wearing a necktie rather than a bow tie. This year, as day eight of presidential nominations drew to a close, things were a little different. The AK MPs gathered at the reception (opposition attendance was particularly low) were guessing who they thought the next Commander-in-Chief was to be.

The name on many people's lips was Vecdi Gönül. The defence minister, who stood for president in 2000 and withdrew only after Ahmet Necdet Sezer's name was thrown into the ring, is not a complete surprise. He had been included several weeks ago in an internal AK party survey of potential candidates. His cabinet portfolio certainly makes him more acceptable to military chiefs. Oh, and his wife doesn't wear a headscarf.

Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç confirmed that a name had been decided: "I know who the candidate is. I am comfortable." Such a pity he could not spill the beans and let the rest of feel that. One of the reporters swarming around the parliament speaker, perhaps also frustrated, tried to egg him on by calling him "Mr President". Mr Arınç's response was clear and staccato: "Don't twist words. I know I am one of the candidates. I was informed of the candidate today. I know the candidate. I am comfortable. Wonderful things will happen."

Is that candidate Vecdi Gönül?

There are, as ever, other names swirling around. One that has been spoken quite often is Nimet Çubukçu, the cabinet minister for women and family affairs. When asked, all she would do was ask for "a little more patience", nothing more. She tried to parry the questions by saying she had a cold, and was not feeling particularly well. There are some countries where that sort of answer is enough to declare you unfit for the job.

With just under 48 hours to go until nominations close, the AK candidate seems decided. All that remains now is for the name to be revealed, and it is the prime minister who has the pleasure - and the discretion - to make the announcement. Some do think the name will be revealed at a parliamentary group meeting tomorrow, but it seems more likely that it will be held off until Wednesday. Following that, the first round of voting could be as early as Thursday.

You can't deny it, it's democracy in action.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Presidential nominations: day six

The halfway point has now been crossed in the period to nominate candidates for Turkey's presidency. This morning, the official candidate count stands at zero, the number declared is no greater than two, and the speculation for others is more intense than ever before.

The deadline for nominating candidates is, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has often reminded us, midnight on the evening of Wednesday 25th April. Not one person has gone to the specially allocated office in the Turkish parliament to nominate either themselves or another, although yesterday the first MP to declare revealed himself to the press.

Ersönmez Yarbay (right) is an AK party deputy for Ankara. He told excited reporters yesterday that he was putting himself forward because he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable at the lack of candidates. His candidacy should be taken about as seriously as that of Metin Uca, the former gameshow host who fielded himself as a compromise candidate a couple of weeks ago.

Both say they are compromise candidates: Mr Uca says he is not an MP and has a greater chance of being politically neutral, while Mr Yarbay says he will go and register if no other AK man does. The problem is not whether an AK deputy will register. Everybody knows there will be somebody; it is now a question of who, and when.

Mr Erdoğan's candidacy is still nothing but guesswork. I myself am still not committed on the issue. Just on Thursday, I was convinced that he would be running after his notable absence - and foreign minister Abdullah Gül's notable presence - at a meeting announcing Turkey's EU reform programme. But this morning's papers have the story of a group of Istanbul fishermen happily greeting the prime minister rather than the president. Mr Erdoğan apparently welcomed the sentiments. Oh, I am confused.

The other substantial development in Ankara yesterday was a meeting between Mr Gül and parliament speaker Bülent Arınç. Both men left the meeting saying they were concerned at the level of media speculation, that there were no differences of opinion between them or with Mr Erdoğan, and that the two of them were agreed upon the same candidate. Of course, they did not say who that candidate might be.

So as we enter day six, there is little new of substance to report. Mr Erdoğan is still the leading candidate, in that there is no doubt he will win if he runs. Mr Arınç and Mr Gül are second-placed. The other serious AK candidates are those whose wives don't wear headscarves. There is also talk of an woman candidate - Nimet Çubukçu, the cabinet minister for women and family affairs, would be the obvious AK choice there.

There is still faint hope of a compromise candidate, selected from outside parliament. Some newspapers have picked up on the speculation this morning: Sabah's headline is "I wouldn't object to a fourth candidate", quoting Mr Arınç yesterday, while Star went for "Everyone will be astonished", saying Mr Erdoğan feels their candidate will be a surprise choice.

Has anyone heard from Hikmet Çetin recently?

Friday, 13 April 2007

Siamese observations

(this entry was written late last night)
Two press conferences, two different leaders, two very different styles. The country's best reporters were already poised for a press conference from Turkey's army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, which was to address issues that "the public needs to know about". What everyone wanted to know what whether General Büyükanıt would clear up his position on the presidential election - Radikal, for instance, went this morning with the headline "What will he say to the Çankaya question?"

Barely a half hour before General Büyükanıt began, parliament speaker (and rumoured presidential candidate) Bülent Arınç was just finishing a press conference of his own, and it was interesting to see how the two leaders compared.

Bülent Arınç's command of Turkish is what I would call near-perfect. He is articulate, has an excellent tone and speaks practically without hesitation. His press conference was similarly well-handled: he made his statement on Saturday's rally in Ankara, with his pauses as if timed to complete a soundbite, and then took questions from reporters. He gave absolutely nothing away about his potential candidacy.

Yaşar Büyükanıt's press conference, on the other hand, lasted well over an hour and was spectacularly successful in recreating the "bored in the classroom" effect. That was until around three o'clock, when he announced that he was fully in favour of sending Turkish troops into northern Iraq. It wasn't a particularly surprising revelation, but producers at the umpteen television channels showing the conference took the opportunity to splash "breaking news" captions on the screen. Perhaps they were trying to make things a little more exciting.

What interested me was the stark difference in style: where Mr Arınç was succinct and to the point, General Büyükanıt resorted to those outstretched Turkish sentences that seem to knock down all hope of a full stop any time soon. While Mr Arınç had me hanging on to his every word, General Büyükanıt frequently made me pick up this morning's Radikal, trying to remember why I was watching him.

Bülent Arınç is, of course, not the first smooth talker of Turkish politics. But it can't have only been me who has noticed that more and more politicians seem to have that gift of talking directly to the public, while those traditional stalwarts of the state bring us all back to school in an instant.

No doubt the Büyükanıt conference was the leading story of the day, and it deserved the near-blanket coverage it received in the evening news bulletins. But I just wonder - if the speaker's conference had somehow been shown first, how many viewers would have switched over when the general came on?